Drivers flouting hands-free law get warnings during grace period

Last updated: 03-11-2020

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Drivers flouting hands-free law get warnings during grace period

In the first week the hands-free driving law was in place, Worcester police officers stopped about 300 motorists for using their cellphones while behind the wheel. Luckily for the scofflaws, the officers were opting for verbal warnings and not fines.

Separately, state troopers issued 578 warnings to drivers in the first week after the law went into effect on Feb. 23, according to the state police.

After signing the law, Gov. Charlie Baker afforded a grace period for enforcement of monetary penalties through March.

In Worcester, police have been standing at busy intersections, knocking on windows and handing flyers to drivers they see using cell phones. Likewise, Southbridge and Oxford police officers, among others in Central Massachusetts, have been giving verbal warnings.

The new law prohibits drivers from using any electronic device, including mobile telephones, unless the device is used in hands-free mode.

The penalties carry significant bite: a first offense draws a $100 fine; the second offense, a $250 fine, and a mandatory education program on distracted driving. Third and subsequent offenses get a $500 fine, plus insurance surcharge and the mandatory education program.

Moreover, drivers who are under 18 aren’t allowed to use electronic devices at all under the new law, and that includes cellphones.

Worcester police Lt. Tim Walsh, who heads the department's Traffic Division, said officers gave out as many as 300 flyers to violators during the first week of the law.

Officer Thomas C. Duffy was particularly busy, Walsh said, handing out flyers as he stood on West Boylston Street near Steve’s Pizza at the West Boylston line, and during another shift at Belmont Street and Lake Avenue.

“I think it was very beneficial for the public coming into the city and leaving the city, to understand what the law is and how it's going to be enforced," Walsh said, noting that other traffic officers, without a fixed post, stopped cars and handed out flyers as they saw fit.

The law is a big change for the motoring public, Walsh suggested.

"You probably see when you're driving that there are a ton of people on their phones still, at lights, sitting there," Walsh said.

"People have to change their habits, and to change their habits, you have to educate them," he added. "You have to tell them, 'This is how you can't do it anymore.' And then, from there, you do the enforcement side, to reinforce it."

Worcester police Sgt. James Foley stressed that drivers have to leave the road if they want to use their cellphones. 

"An example of this occurred just outside the police station here," Foley said. "A woman pulled over to the side of the road, and she was probably off the curb over 2 feet. That's not going to work.

"You are really supposed to leave the roadway," Foley said. "You shouldn't be in a public lane of travel, the side of the roadway, or in a bike lane, breakdown lane, or anything like that. You need to get off the roadway and into a parking lot, a safe space."

Foley noted that officers have begun to notice people using smart watches, perhaps to circumvent the law. But that too, is considered an electronic device and drivers are subject to a fine, he said.

Provisions in the law allow for use of a cellphone if the driver is involved in an accident, or if the driver is behind an accident. There are also exceptions for drivers whose passenger is having a medical emergency.

Foley said that when a driver uses their cellphone to check a message, they take their eyes off the road for five seconds, on average. That's a considerable amount of time, especially when a vehicle is traveling 30 to 40 miles per hour. It takes a driver roughly 1.5 seconds during the daytime to react to something in front of them, he said.

"That's why we see crashes all the time," Foley said.

A glaring example of distracted driving occurred June 12, 2018, when a crash claimed the life of 20-year-old Gabriella V. Lowell of Worcester.

The driver, Tyler G. Hamilton, was charged with motor vehicle homicide, and admitted looking at a text he received before the impact. He was sentenced to 4 years of probation.

In Sterling, police posted on Facebook that they had stopped 75 drivers since Feb. 23 and issued warnings and information on the law.

"Many indicators are showing that the law is already having a positive effect," Sterling police said.

In Southbridge, Police Chief Shane D. Woodson said the department notified motorists about the new law on all of its social media platforms, while traffic officers continue to issue verbal warnings throughout March.

Woodson said the department also would put out a hands-free policy for police to lead by example.

“We want them to comply with the law that everybody else has to follow, including me," Woodson said. "I had to get used to it. I had to set up the Bluetooth in my car."

Woodson said he is a proponent of the law.

“All the data that’s been produced with accidents and fatalities — many of them are due to distracted driving," he said. "I hope the intention of this law would be to reduce some of those injuries and some of those fatalities that resulted from distracted driving. I support it 100%.

“If you think about it,” Woodson added, “every day in your personal life, everybody has a cellphone now, and you get used to setting your GPS, texting, and taking calls when you’re driving. It’s going to result in a change in behavior for all of us, but in the end, it’s a good thing. Once we all get used to it, it’ll be a good thing, and it’ll keep people safe.”

In Oxford, Police Chief Anthony Saad is an advocate of the law.

“I’m glad that the law was finally passed after all these years, and the Legislature came up with an agreement on it. When we look at the number of accidents we have, especially the number of rear-end accidents, I believe it’s people paying attention to their phones and not the driving. I think it’s a good tool for all of us, and it’s going to enhance public safety moving forward.

"I just hope people respect the law and get their hands-free setup in their cars," Saad said. "We all know the newer cars have the Bluetooth connections, and even if they don’t, for $10 you can set up those holders in the air vents for the car, and you can tap the phone, you just can’t have it in your hand."

Worcester, Southbridge and Oxford are among police departments that have secured state grants to ramp up enforcement of distracted driving after the grace period ends March 31.


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