State hands-free phone law for drivers starts Sunday

State hands-free phone law for drivers starts Sunday

While the American Revolution started in Massachusetts, the Bay State is a little late in the hands-free-while-driving brigade.

Not only is Massachusetts the last of the six New England states to prohibit cellphone use while driving, it also signed legislation to do so after New York, California, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Sunday marks a beginning of a whole new era in Massachusetts. On this day, no Massachusetts motor vehicle operator may use electronic devices while driving unless the technology being used is hands-free. And to mark the occasion, local and state police will be out in force, hoping to turn the tide on distracted driving.

Lt. Sean Murtha, spokesman for the Worcester Police Department, and David Procopio, spokesman for the Massachusetts State Police, agree the new law gives law enforcement more tools to enforce against distracted driving.

“Without a doubt, in some of these serious crashes, distracted driving has played a role," Murtha said. "Now, with this new law, holding the phone (while driving) is against the law."

“The hands-free law provides for much more effective enforcement of distracted driving because it makes clear that anyone holding a cellphone is in violation,” Procopio said. “The texting law passed a few years ago had well-documented challenges to enforcement because it remained legal for drivers to hold and manipulate phones to make and receive calls. That law was a good start, but we also know that dialing or answering the phone or holding it to your ear are distractions in and of themselves.”

Under the new law, “An Act requiring the hands-free use of mobile telephones while driving,” drivers cannot use an electronic device unless the device is being used in hands-free mode.

Drivers cannot read or view text messages or look at images or video, unless what is being viewed on the device is helping with navigation and the device is mounted in an appropriate location.

They also cannot make phone calls unless they are able to do so without holding the phone, using technology such as Bluetooth.

The new law permits the use of electronic devices if they are being used in response to an emergency, necessary for first responders to do their jobs. It also permits use if operators are stationary and not in active lanes of travel.

Penalties for violating the hands-free law include a $100 fine for a first offense, $250 fine for a second offense and $500 fine for a third or subsequent offense. A third or subsequent offense will count as a surchargeable event on a driver’s insurance. Drivers who commit a second or subsequent offense are required to complete an educational program focused on distracted driving prevention.

While Massachusetts’ new cellphone driving law takes effect on Sunday, there will be a short grace period for first-time violators who are holding their phones and talking while driving. If you’re cited between Feb. 23 and March 31, you will only receive a warning.

The consensus of police chiefs and law enforcement leaders in Central Massachusetts is that the hands-free law was a long time coming.

“It’s unfortunate that it took so long for Massachusetts to finally get this law. I wish that we had it several years ago. But here it is,” Oxford police Chief Anthony P. Saad said. “We wholeheartedly support it."

“Distracted driving has been the cause of many horrific crashes, and I think this is long overdue,” Fitchburg police Chief Ernest F. Martineau said. “It’s only going to make the roadways safer for everybody. I’m excited that we are finally at this point.”

Murtha said the Worcester police will have more traffic details monitoring motorists and their driving habits, and will implement a vigorous campaign for enforcement and awareness.

“We do expect compliance with this, but we also understand that it takes some time for people to change habits,” Murtha said. “We’re going to emphasize warnings over money tickets in the early days of this.”

To kick off enforcement of the new law, Procopio said the State Police will deploy dozens of extra patrols across the state and traffic patrols will have two troopers in each cruiser (rather than the usual one) to allow for a spotter.

Most police departments have made a commitment to be out in force Sunday.

“We will be issuing warnings and, then, of course, on the 31st of March we will be issuing the citations,” Saad said. “It’s not a secondary violation. It’s a primary violation. So all the officer has to do is see it in the hand, and that’s it. And they are going to get stopped, and they are going to get pulled over and, after March 31, possibly fined.

While he expects a slow upstart, Sturbridge police Chief Thomas J. Ford III said he hopes the new law will have a significant impact over time.

“We will have specific patrols that are engaged in just this type of enforcement," Ford said. "But it’s more of an educational aspect of enforcement. We’re really just trying to get everybody’s attention and let them know what’s going on with the new law." Like all of us, area police chiefs see motorists texting and driving all the time.

“You see people stopped at a red light, and they immediately go to their phone,” Auburn police Chief Andrew J. Sluckis Jr. said. “The next thing you know the light turns green, and they’re still on their phone and people are beeping their horns at them because they are not paying attention to what they’re doing."

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,166 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2017 involving distracted drivers. Six percent of all drivers (2,994 of 52,274) involved in fatal crashes in 2017 were reported as distracted at the time of the crashes.

In 2017, 434 people died in fatal crashes that involved cellphone-related activities as distractions. For these distraction-affected crashes, the police crash report stated that the driver was talking on, listening to or engaged in some other cellphone activity at the time of the crash, according to NHTSA.

Eight percent of drivers 15 to 19 involved in fatal crashes in 2017 were reported as distracted. This age group has the largest proportion of drivers who were distracted at the time of the fatal crashes, NHTSA said.

“It crosses various age demographics with respect to the violation,” Ford said. “Distracted driver is just that, distracted driving. While it may be a hand-held telephone, it may be another electronic device, such as GPS, a stereo system or a small computer.”

In Worcester’s Canal District, a consensus of the Thursday-afternoon patrons were completely onboard with the hands-free law.

"I think it’s a good idea," Robert Ziedelis of Worcester said. "I commute on my bike (motorcycle) between jobs, and I see distracted drivers all the time."

"It’s a great law," Anne-Marie D’Errico of Shrewsbury said. "There’re too many accidents because people are using their phones while they drive."

"It’s definitely a good idea," Beth Honsantner of Worcester said. "It seems crazy to me that Massachusetts hasn’t had this law before, while other states have it."

"I’m originally from New York where that’s been a law for some time," Isaac Honsantner added. "So it seems pretty normal to have it."

All four, including one who had a "near-death experience" on his motorcycle, agree the law is needed.

"The last time I was run off the road was by a distracted driver," Ziedelis said, "I was pulling in for gas on Lincoln Street, and somebody in a van decided to go out the wrong way, diagonally, and rather than hit them, I had to drop the bike, cracked a rib, beat up the bike pretty good. There were two people in the van, and they were both on the phone."

People in law enforcement agree that distracted driving is a big problem on our roadway. But they’re hoping this new law will change that.

“Internationally, motor vehicles fatalities have gone down sharply from their high point in the ‘70s,” Murtha said. “But after years of decline, they started to tick back up a little around 2012, which most people attribute to distracted driving, in particular, cellphone use."

"Distraction caused by cellphone use is a widespread problem," Procopio said. "Along with drunk driving, drugged driving, and excessive speed, distraction is one of the major causes of serious crashes, and cellphone use is the main cause of distraction."

“We have a major problem with distracted drivers, and I think cellphones are the primary offenders,” Saad said. “When somebody rear-ends another car, what is the explanation? You’re not paying attention. Why aren’t you paying attention? Because you were on your cellphone. We had several people that admit when we investigate accidents what caused it. I answered my cellphone. I was looking down at my phone. It’s definitely a contributory factor. No doubt about it.”

“We had several serious accidents where there has been a direct correlation to someone texting on their phone while driving,” Sluckis said. “And, in every case, they have crossed over into oncoming traffic and are involved in a head-on accident or they crossed over into the breakdown lane and hit a fixed object on the side of the road.”

Emily Stein, president of Safe Roads Alliance, spoke at the unveiling of the “Eyes Up, Phones Down Worcester” campaign kickoff earlier in the week at Worcester City Hall. In 2011, she entered the road safety field after her 61-year-old father was killed by a distracted driver.

Stein said Safe Roads Alliances has been pushing for the hands-free law in Massachusetts for a decade.

“Picking up a phone is not something that you have to do,” Stein said, “And distracted driving now is something that, we hope, when we look back another year or two or 10, that we think, oh gosh, that was really inappropriate, just like drunk driving is today. We want to get to a place where distracted driving is socially unacceptable.”

Accompanied Stein was Alyson Lowell of Worcester. Lowell is the mother of Gabriella “Gabby” Lowell, 20, who was struck and killed on June 12, 2018, by a distracted driver on Grafton Street.

Tyler G. Hamilton, 21, of Worcester, who admitted to texting before the crash, was sentenced to four years of probation and ordered to perform 500 hours of community service after pleading guilty to motor vehicle homicide by negligent operation.

At the campaign kickoff, Stein read a statement written by Lowell.

“Gabby ... was in a crosswalk and was thrown 66 feet and killed on impact because of his senseless actions,” Lowell wrote in her statement. “Texting and driving has now replaced drinking and driving as the leading cause of death among teenage drivers. Teenagers are not the only guilty ones, though.”

Signed by Gov. Charlie Baker on Nov. 25, the hands-free law requires law enforcement officers who make stops for handheld cellphone use to note the age, race and gender of drivers issued a warning or citation. The Registry of Motor Vehicles will house the data and the Secretary of Public Safety’s office will annually release the information to the public.

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