Drivers beware. As of next month, holding a cellphone while driving will be illegal in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Drivers will no longer be able to hold a cellphone, or any electronic device, in their hand while operating a motor vehicle.
Massachusetts Governor Charles D. Baker Jr. signed the so-called Distracted Driver bill on November 25. Passage of the bill makes Massachusetts the 21st state in the country to ban hand-held use of a cellphone while driving.
The new law prohibits drivers from holding a phone for any reason, other than in an emergency. Calls can only be made in hands-free mode.
The new law goes into effect on Sunday, February 23. However, there is a grace period before drivers will be fined for a violation. Until March 31, violators will only be issued a warning for a first offense. Any subsequent offense, however, will result in the driver receiving a citation.
As of March 31, the fine will be $100 for a first offense, $250 for a second offense and $500 for a third or subsequent offense. In addition to the fines, the bill requires that any driver with two or more violations must complete a program “that encourages a change in driver behavior and attitude about distracted driving.”
A third violation would prompt an insurance surcharge. The bill does not allow authorities to seize, or demand the forfeiture of, a violator’s cellphone or electronic device.
The state passed a ban on texting while driving in 2010. According to police, that ban is difficult to enforce. Officers cannot tell if a driver who is typing on a cellphone is texting or dialing a phone number. The person might also be accessing the phone’s GPS application, or checking an Instagram page.
The new bill goes beyond cellphones to include the use of any electronic device while driving. Drivers will not be allowed to view text, videos or images on any electronic device while behind the wheel.
Bourne Police Lieutenant Brandon M. Esip said the new law “is a step in the right direction” to help police enforce the state’s “no texting while driving” law. Lt. Esip said the way the law was previously written, the officer was required to note specifically what drivers are doing on their phones.
“With the new law, any use of a cellphone by hand is illegal,” he said.
The lieutenant said that if a driver is not paying attention to the road, which is the person primary responsibility while behind the wheel, “that’s a bad thing.” The new law, he said, will curb that behavior and that threat to driver safety.
“It’s a really important thing that people put the phone down,” he said.
There is an allowance in the bill for drivers to view images on a map or navigation system. However, the device the images are being shown on must be mounted on a console or dashboard. Drivers cannot hold a device in their hand.
The new law does allow the use of a hand-held device by a driver in the event of reporting an emergency situation. The bill defines emergency as having to report a disabled vehicle; a disabled vehicle or accident on a roadway; a need for medical attention or assistance; and intervention by police, fire or emergency responders to ensure the safety of a driver or passenger, or the general public.
Another key exemption in the law is that it does not apply to the use of a hand-held microphone by the operator of a citizen’s band radio. However, the driver must keep one hand on the steering wheel.
Lieutenant Douglas M. DeCosta with the Falmouth Police Department noted that drivers will be allowed to touch their cellphones while driving, only briefly, to either answer or hang up a phone call.
“The new law prohibits drivers from holding a hand-held electronic device,” Lt. DeCosta said, “except for a single touch, swipe or tap to activate hands-free mode—Bluetooth, speakerphone, et cetera.”
The lieutenant also pointed out that the law allows police officers to stop and cite a driver “for the sole reason of using their phone while driving.” Some violations, such as for not wearing a seat belt, require an officer to observe a primary violation first. That, he said, is not the case either with the current no texting while driving law, or the new law forbidding holding any electronic device while driving.
Police departments across the Upper Cape are welcoming the new law as a life-saving measure.
In Sandwich, Police Chief Peter N. Wack said that hands-free laws have been in effect for a number of years in other states and that he was involved in compiling data related to distracted driving while he was a lieutenant with the Connecticut State Police. He said that during the late 2000s, he was writing traffic safety grants.
The Connecticut State Police had a partnership with the Connecticut Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in order to compile the data that related car crashes to distracted driving. The findings were that there was an increase in the number of crashes being caused by distracted drivers.
“Cellphone use, whether holding it for a call, searching the phone for information, texting, or emailing does distract a driver,” Chief Wack said. “This distraction does lead to crashes.”
He said that in Sandwich, they have seen drivers swerving while driving as a result of holding their cellphones.
When it comes to enforcing the Massachusetts law, Chief Wack said that the way they go about it will be no different than other traffic violations. If an officer sees someone violating the law, they can be stopped.
“The officer’s observations will be enough to stop and cite an operator who is illegally using a cellphone,” he said. “There is no need for an officer to view the violator’s cellphone at the time of the stop.”
He said that this is the same way that officers handle stop sign, traffic light, and speed violations—the officer’s observations are documented and then the officer appears in court to testify in regards to their observations, if needed.
“The Sandwich police will enforce this law as they do all motor vehicle laws in Massachusetts,” he said. “The public’s compliance will save lives and injuries from occurring.”
In Mashpee, police expressed confidence that the new law will prove beneficial to ensuring public safety.
“I expect there to be an adjustment period,” Captain Thomas Rose said, “but overall the law will increase the safety of the public on the roads.”