Road safety has been on many of our minds this summer. Fatal traffic accidents always have a way of reminding us to pay attention. Since we all need to share the road – school buses, cars, trucks, and motorcycles, as well as bicycles and walkers – here are some reminders and some new laws to consider when you leave your house.
School buses and child safety
There is no passing of school buses, unless you are on a physically divided highway. A new law allows the state or a municipality to mount surveillance cameras on school buses in order to “prove, enforce, or open an investigation into a violation of illegally passing a school bus.” In addition, as of 2021, buses will be equipped with crossing arms to ensure students cross further out in front of the bus where drivers can see them.
There are also some new rules about car seats. One new law requires children to ride in rear-facing car seats until age 2 or when they no longer fit in the seat. The other law requires children who weigh less than 55 pounds to use a harness car seat rather than a belt-positioning booster seat. Parents can receive free car seat inspections on the maine.gov website. For our community, the closest places are the Wiscasset Ambulance Service, Bath Police Department, and Boothbay Region Health Center. Low-income parents may also qualify for free car seats.
The biggest change on the roads this fall will be a ban on hand-held phones and devices while behind the wheel. This goes into effect on Sept. 19. You can still have phone conversations while you drive, but it must be through a headset or Bluetooth option.
I’ve heard from many constituents this year about bicycles on the roads. A number of new bicycling laws went into effect in 2015, and the Maine Department of Transportation has a good summary of them on its website. Generally, bicyclists in Maine are subject to the same traffic rights and responsibilities as motor-vehicle drivers – they must stop at lights and stop signs, stop for school buses, yield to pedestrians and traffic when entering a roadway, and even use lights and reflectors after dark. But please remember that bicyclists are not required to use bicycle paths, or road shoulders, although they are expected to ride as far to the right as “practicable.” In Maine, they can also ride on the sidewalks.
The biggest concern I hear is from drivers who unexpectedly come across bicyclists riding two abreast on a public road. Maine has no “single-file” law, but bicyclists should consider where they are riding when they decide to ride two or more abreast, because drivers are also warned against “unnecessarily sound(ing) a horn,” such as when they want to warn bicyclists when coming up behind them, especially on a curving road. Everyone on the road should be aware of their surroundings and act accordingly. Because Maine law does not prohibit drivers or bicyclists from wearing earbuds, approaching traffic may be difficult to hear.
Education is key to so much of this, which is why a bill was introduced during the legislative session, “To Provide Traffic Safety Education in Maine Schools.” L.D. 470 mandates annual traffic safety education in at least four different grade levels between kindergarten and eighth grade. The bill received bipartisan support and easily passed both the House and the Senate, but has been carried over until the next session, largely because of the initial cost of $70,000.
Both bicyclists and motor-vehicle drivers agree that everyone will benefit from a vote this fall on transportation. In a special session, legislators approved having voters weigh in on a $105 million bond for Maine’s transportation infrastructure. As we’ve seen in our community this summer, there’s been work on U.S. Route 1 from Bath to Cook’s Corner, and some repaving of the Sagadahoc Bridge between Bath and Woolwich.
Due to the public dissatisfaction with funding transportation through bonds, Gov. Mills and the Legislature established a Blue Ribbon Commission to Study and Recommend Funding Solutions for the State’s Transportation Systems. It’s tasked with reforming the funding mechanism with an eye toward providing equity, sustainability, and predictability in our road systems, making them safe and reliable.
Drivers and bicyclists alike can benefit from fewer distractions. While it may inconvenience some of us who need to transition to hands-free technology, driver distraction is a big factor in accidents and near-misses. Start practicing now. Also, on our many narrow roads, try driving below the speed limit. It turns out that narrow, shoulder-less roads may have higher speed limits than they deserve.
Sen. Vitelli and I have heard from many of you regarding traffic safety, especially, but not exclusively, on the very busy stretch of Route 1 through Woolwich, which sees over 49,000 vehicles per day! Channel 6’s Don Carrigan spoke with us recently on the issue. We’ll be meeting with local residents and leaders, as well as with DOT officials, to discuss this issue. Please send us your input.
(Rep. Allison Hepler, D-Woolwich, represents Arrowsic, Dresden, Georgetown, Phippsburg, part of Richmond, and Woolwich. She sits on the Marine Resources Committee.)