Hands on the wheel, not on the phone

Hands on the wheel, not on the phone

This past Sunday, with little fanfare, Massachusetts became the latest state to ban the hand-held use of cell phones while driving. The move carries with it a series of escalating fines for repeat offenders, and is designed to help cut down on the number of distracted drivers on the road. Fortunately, because of its wording, the new law promises to have a greater degree of both compliance and consequence than a previous rule banning texting while driving.

The hands-free law means that drivers can no longer hold their phones while operating a motor vehicle. This means that in addition to not being able to use their phones to text, email, or use the internet, the only circumstance under which they can touch their phone is to activate a hands-free feature or make an emergency call. Other than that, however, a driver must pull over and park the car before using a phone. Stop signs and red lights do not count. Also, drivers under 18 are still banned from using their phones at all.

The cost for ignoring this new law is considerable. A first offense carries with it a $100 fine. The second time around, the fine jumps to $250 and the completion of a distracted driving educational program. After that, for each additional offense, the fine climbs to $500, as well as a mandatory distracted driving program and an insurance surcharge.

Those who crafted the law tacitly acknowledged that the new rule needed to have more teeth than a 2010 regulation banning texting while driving. Before the hands-free law went into effect, drivers could claim that rather than texting they had merely been dialing a phone number. That loophole allowed many drivers to deny that they had been texting. Now, however, the distinction between texting and dialing has been erased; merely having the phone in hand is evidence of guilt.

The need for the law is more than theoretical. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that in 2017 alone, more than 3,100 people were killed as a result of distracted driving. Given what we know about distracted driving and the deadly impact it can have on drivers, passengers, and others, one could reasonably wonder why it took Massachusetts so long to implement what appears on the face of it to be a common-sense law. In fact, up until Sunday, the commonwealth held the unique distinction of being the only New England state that still allowed the use of hand-held devices while driving.

The delay in enacting the new law stemmed in part from a desire to ensure that the regulation would not be used disproportionately against people of color. To that end, the Legislature agreed to include a provision requiring that police keep records regarding the age, race, and gender of people pulled over for not complying with the law, whether it results in a warning or a citation. The data will be available for public review on a yearly basis. If the information reveals racial profiling, the offending police department will be subject to mandatory bias training.

It is difficult to assess just how quickly Massachusetts drivers will comply with the new law. Living in a culture where cell phone usage has become ubiquitous means that changing the rules will require a change in how we live our lives. For many, once we get into our vehicles, we feel that we have a right to privacy and a right to – within the bounds of law – do as we please. For many of us, that includes being able to use our phones. That, quite simply, must change.

Those who find it difficult to let go of their phones can take some solace for another month or so: police will issue only warnings through March 31. After that, however, those who insist on picking up their phones while behind the wheel will pay a high price for making the wrong call.

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