Distracted driving law effective Feb. 23

Distracted driving law effective Feb. 23

The law officially goes into effect on Sunday, Feb. 23, but law enforcement will only issue warnings for violations until March 31.

This article is part of a series on new Massachusetts laws that go into effect in 2020.

A new law prohibiting people from holding electronic devices while driving a motor vehicle or pedaling a bike unless the device is being used in hands-free mode goes into effect in early 2020.

Gov. Charlie Baker signed the legislation into law on Monday, Nov. 25. His signature put the Bay State in the company of 20 other states with laws that prohibit holding cell phones while driving a motor vehicle. Massachusetts, meanwhile, was also the last hold out among New England states without such a law.

“We are especially grateful for the many advocates and families that passionately fought to bring this bill to fruition, are thankful for the Legislature’s collaboration on this bill and look forward to continued efforts to improve road safety in Massachusetts,” said Baker after a signing ceremony flanked by state leaders, transportation officials and advocacy groups.

The law officially goes into effect on Sunday, Feb. 23, but law enforcement will only issue warnings for violations until March 31. Typing or receiving messages behind the wheel remains prohibited.

Motorists will face fines of $100 for a first violation, $250 for a second violation and $500 for every violation after that.

“Operators who commit a second or subsequent offense are required to complete an educational program focused on distracted driving prevention,” wrote Baker’s office in a brief on the new law. “[A] third and subsequent violations will count as a surchargable offense.”

Beyond cellphone use, the law also requires the Registry of Motor Vehicles to collect data from traffic stops, including the driver’s age, race and gender without identifying the driver to help identify police agencies that may be engaging in racial profiling.

Under the law, drivers cannot make phone calls unless they are able to do so without holding the phone, utilizing technology such as Bluetooth, Google Home, Siri, Alexa, etc.

The law carves out exemptions: Emergency phone use will be allowed, but drivers will have the burden of proving why such an action was merited.

The hands-free legislation was one measure packaged in an omnibus bill that Baker’s administration filed in early 2019.

“That proposal includes measures to improve work zone safety, require use of ignition interlock devices for first-time offenders and the creation of a framework to regulate new technology like electronic scooters and other low-speed mobility devices,” wrote the Baker administration.

In between 2012-2016, 15,662 people were seriously injured and 1,820 people lost their lives on Massachusetts roadways, the governor’s office notes.

The new law aims to crack down on an epidemic of distracted driving accelerated by smartphones. AAA's 2018 Traffic Safety Culture Index published in June found that, while driving, about 52 percent of motorists had recently talked on a handheld cellphone, 41 percent had read a message and 32 percent had typed or sent a message.

During the signing ceremony in November, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said 309 people have died in traffic crashes in Massachusetts this year.

Reporting and writing by State House News Service journalist Chris Lisinski and The Associated Press was used in this report.

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