Early data shows white drivers got more breaks for hands-free cellphone violations

Last updated: 02-08-2021

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Early data shows white drivers got more breaks for hands-free cellphone violations

Data collected under new law shows whites more likely to be given warnings than people of color

Behind the wheel and on the phone. We still see it all the time in Massachusetts, despite the new hands-free law that went into effect a year ago, requiring drivers to put down their phones and only use hands-free technology. To Emily Stein, the law couldn't come soon enough. Stein's father was killed by a distracted driver. She's with Safe Roads Alliance, which pushed for the hands-free law for years."This year marks the 10th year that my dad won't be with us, and every day I miss him, every day I wish I could call him, especially in this past year," she said.The law's passage was delayed over a debate about whether data about who's being stopped should be collected. Lawmakers were concerned that the law would open the door to racial profiling by police -- pulling people over for "driving while Black."Data collection was included in the new law, and 5 Investigates Northeastern University School of Journalism obtained the data from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation about who's being stopped under the new law and what's happening to them.To Stein, the sheer number of citations was disheartening, because it showed people are still texting and driving.Texting and driving was already against the law and in 2019, there were 13,994 citations.The number of citations jumped dramatically in 2020 despite the new law coming as the pandemic hit and roads cleared out for a few months. The new law made it illegal to even hold your phone in your hand while driving. During the time the new law was in effect -- Feb. 23 through Dec. 31 -- the number of citations more than doubled to 29,808."We're not seeing the numbers get better. So it's just that reminder that every crash has a personal story, every crash has a face to it," Stein said. 5 Investigates asked Dr. Carsten Andresen, a professor of criminal justice at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas, to review the data. Andresen worked as a research associate on a larger study of all traffic stops in Massachusetts that was published in 2004 by researchers at Northeastern University. That study found disparities between police treatment of drivers of color and white drivers.While the data is limited, and 2020 was hardly a typical year for driving or law enforcement, Andresen found another disparity in the new data about hands-free violations. 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"White people, white drivers, they had the best outcomes. About 70% of them received a warning," he said. Non-white drivers, on the other hand, were more likely to be given a ticket with a monetary fine, he found. White drivers got a citation 30% of the time, while Latino and Black drivers each got citations 40% of the time. Asian drivers were cited 44% of the time.The citation data includes drivers only cited for violating the hands-free law as well as drivers cited for several offenses including the hands-free law, but the data doesn't make clear what if any of those other violations a driver may have been cited with.Many police departments only had a handful of citations, making it difficult if not impossible to draw conclusions about the performance of many individual departments. But when the stop data is aggregated, Andresen said white people are more likely to get a break."I just think of it as white privilege," he said.SEE MORE OF THE DATA 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The law also requires the state to hire researchers to analyze the data, and the Baker administration recently awarded a contract to Salem State University for that.A spokesperson for the Mass. Executive Office of Public Safety and Security told 5 Investigates in a statement: "The Administration has no tolerance for any race-based bias in policing and will evaluate the results of the report."Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said, "My reaction is disappointment, but it's certainly not shock or surprise. This was the very reason why we advocated for the law to require police officers to collect data."Hall wants more done with data for all traffic stops."Do you think this will be eye opening to law enforcement?" 5 Investigates' Mike Beaudet asked him."I don't know if it will be eye opening to law enforcement, because my sense is they know what they're doing and they've always known what they're doing. And this is part of the reason that they fought so hard to limit this type of data collection and more importantly, data reporting," he said.Andresen said this is invaluable data for Massachusetts that should be a starting point for further analysis. But he also questioned why more hasn't been done with the research showing disparate treatment of drivers of color."I am surprised that nearly 20 years later, they have all this data and you have all of these universities, you have all of these really smart people in Massachusetts that somebody hasn't thought of a way to sort of look at this," he said. Reporting for this investigation was done as part of a seminar on investigative reporting taught by 5 Investigates' Mike Beaudet, who is also a journalism professor at Northeastern University. The following students participated in the project: Yixuan Chen, Kaline Langley, Daviti Tsintsadze, and Pirzan Turel.

Behind the wheel and on the phone. We still see it all the time in Massachusetts, despite the new hands-free law that went into effect a year ago, requiring drivers to put down their phones and only use hands-free technology.

To Emily Stein, the law couldn't come soon enough. Stein's father was killed by a distracted driver. She's with Safe Roads Alliance, which pushed for the hands-free law for years.

"This year marks the 10th year that my dad won't be with us, and every day I miss him, every day I wish I could call him, especially in this past year," she said.

The law's passage was delayed over a debate about whether data about who's being stopped should be collected. Lawmakers were concerned that the law would open the door to racial profiling by police -- pulling people over for "driving while Black."

Data collection was included in the new law, and 5 Investigates Northeastern University School of Journalism obtained the data from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation about who's being stopped under the new law and what's happening to them.

To Stein, the sheer number of citations was disheartening, because it showed people are still texting and driving.

Texting and driving was already against the law and in 2019, there were 13,994 citations.

The number of citations jumped dramatically in 2020 despite the new law coming as the pandemic hit and roads cleared out for a few months. The new law made it illegal to even hold your phone in your hand while driving.

During the time the new law was in effect -- Feb. 23 through Dec. 31 -- the number of citations more than doubled to 29,808.

"We're not seeing the numbers get better. So it's just that reminder that every crash has a personal story, every crash has a face to it," Stein said.

5 Investigates asked Dr. Carsten Andresen, a professor of criminal justice at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas, to review the data. Andresen worked as a research associate on a larger study of all traffic stops in Massachusetts that was published in 2004 by researchers at Northeastern University. That study found disparities between police treatment of drivers of color and white drivers.

While the data is limited, and 2020 was hardly a typical year for driving or law enforcement, Andresen found another disparity in the new data about hands-free violations.

"White people, white drivers, they had the best outcomes. About 70% of them received a warning," he said.

Non-white drivers, on the other hand, were more likely to be given a ticket with a monetary fine, he found. White drivers got a citation 30% of the time, while Latino and Black drivers each got citations 40% of the time. Asian drivers were cited 44% of the time.

The citation data includes drivers only cited for violating the hands-free law as well as drivers cited for several offenses including the hands-free law, but the data doesn't make clear what if any of those other violations a driver may have been cited with.

Many police departments only had a handful of citations, making it difficult if not impossible to draw conclusions about the performance of many individual departments. But when the stop data is aggregated, Andresen said white people are more likely to get a break.

"I just think of it as white privilege," he said.

The law also requires the state to hire researchers to analyze the data, and the Baker administration recently awarded a contract to Salem State University for that.

A spokesperson for the Mass. Executive Office of Public Safety and Security told 5 Investigates in a statement: "The Administration has no tolerance for any race-based bias in policing and will evaluate the results of the report."

Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said, "My reaction is disappointment, but it's certainly not shock or surprise. This was the very reason why we advocated for the law to require police officers to collect data."

Hall wants more done with data for all traffic stops.

"Do you think this will be eye opening to law enforcement?" 5 Investigates' Mike Beaudet asked him.

"I don't know if it will be eye opening to law enforcement, because my sense is they know what they're doing and they've always known what they're doing. And this is part of the reason that they fought so hard to limit this type of data collection and more importantly, data reporting," he said.

Andresen said this is invaluable data for Massachusetts that should be a starting point for further analysis. But he also questioned why more hasn't been done with the research showing disparate treatment of drivers of color.

"I am surprised that nearly 20 years later, they have all this data and you have all of these universities, you have all of these really smart people in Massachusetts that somebody hasn't thought of a way to sort of look at this," he said.

Reporting for this investigation was done as part of a seminar on investigative reporting taught by 5 Investigates' Mike Beaudet, who is also a journalism professor at Northeastern University. The following students participated in the project: Yixuan Chen, Kaline Langley, Daviti Tsintsadze, and Pirzan Turel.


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