An unidentified man talks on his cellphone at a Portland intersection on Wednesday. A new state law taking effect in September will make it illegal to use a handheld phone while driving. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Nearly every state in the country has outlawed texting while driving. Maine took that necessary step in 2011, and is rightly strengthening distracted driving laws this year to include hand-held cell phone use.

The real key, however, is for Maine drivers to recognize the dangers of distracted driving — not because they could get a fine of at least $50, but because they could change lives in an instant.

A bill signed by Gov. Janet Mills in late June will extend Maine’s distracted driving prohibitions to the use of handheld phones or other electronic devices while driving. Hands-free phone use will still be legal on the road, but drivers will now have to pull over if they’re going to use any hand-held phone or device. Being stopped at an intersection does not count as being pulled over under the law — which does have some exemptions for commercial and school bus drivers using devices as part of their employment, and anyone communicating with law enforcement or emergency personnel in the case of an emergency.

“The issue of distracted driving has become an epidemic in recent years,” said the new law’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Bill Diamond of Windham. “A driver only needs to take their eyes off the road for a second to cause a fatal accident. Passing this bill will save lives, and I thank my colleagues on both sides of the aisle for their strong support.”

Federal statistics demonstrate how dangerous and prevalent distracted driving is on America’s roadways. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nine people die each day in crashes reported to involve a distracted driver. In 2017, 9 percent of all crashes involved a distracted driver.

And we unfortunately have plenty of anecdotal warning in Maine about the dangers of distracted driving. Take, for example, the 2016 crash on Route 302 in Casco that killed a popular middle school teacher. According to the Portland Press Herald, a commercial truck driver was convicted of manslaughter following the crash, and while evidence did not show the truck driver was using his cellphone when the crash occurred, he had five phone apps open and had made a call 12 minutes prior.

Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills was confident that the truck driver’s phone played some role in the crash and looked to send a message about phone use while driving, as reported by the Press Herald.

“It’s the new addiction,” she said. “People simply cannot put this thing away …”

While there is no federal law against texting and driving, 48 states states have implemented some sort of ban, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And Maine is now one of 20 states to ban hand-held cell phone use. That’s a good group for us to join, even if it won’t prevent everyone from staying off their phones while behind the wheel.

Most people, including members of this editorial board, can do better when it comes to focusing on the road. Research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reports that 97 percent of drivers believe texting or emailing while driving is a serious or very serious threat to their safety. Forty-five percent of those drivers, however, also acknowledge that they’ve read an email or text while driving in the past month. Thirty-five percent have typed a text or email in that timeframe. Clearly, there is a disconnect between our driving behavior and what we know to be dangerous.

It’s not just cell phones. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety also looked at the role played by the built-in technology increasingly found in new cars relating to driver distraction. These “In-Vehicle Information Systems (IVIS),” such as audio entertainment controls, navigation and calling and texting features, can be “too distracting to be enabled while the vehicle is in motion,” according to the study.

In many ways, our culture is defined by distraction. The opportunity to communicate and access information with the touch of a button also makes it easy to lose focus of the important things right in front of us. We know, because we’re guilty of it too.

Everyone should be careful about focusing on the road to make sure that we, our passengers and other motorists make it safely to our destinations — not because there’s a new law, but because the dangers of distraction are so high. The texts and calls can wait.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...