With the evolution of technology comes the evolution of Massachusetts rules, laws, and statutes. In recent years we have seen rapid change in smart phones, cellular use and data transmission and communications. These developments affect Massachusetts drivers in very real ways. People not only get and make phone calls while driving, but send and receive emails, chats, text messages, snap chats and the like. In 2010 Massachusetts enacted the Safe Driving Law which bans texting while driving and prohibits cellphone use by junior operators age 18 and younger. Currently, adult operators in Massachusetts are allowed to hold their cellphones to make a call while driving, as long as they are not texting or emailing. Note however, if you cross state lines, the laws for cell phone use vary from state to state. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, New Hampshire and Connecticut banned all handheld cell use for all drivers. In Rhode Island, novice drivers are banned from all cell phone use and from all texting, but not adult primary drivers.
In some states bordering Massachusetts recent laws to address distracted driving have taken things to the next level and now require all motor vehicle operators to use only hands-free technology. There is speculation in Massachusetts that the Commonwealth will follow the trend and allow only hands-free cellphone use while driving. Several bills have been submitted for the 2015-2016 legislative session in support of hands-free only cellphone use for Massachusetts. If enacted, a hands-free law would require up to date and current accessories, such as a Bluetooth enabled vehicle, voice commands, and in some instances, a new smart phone!
Regardless of the changing rules and laws on use of smart phones in the car, there are no guarantees that a hands-free law would reduce the amount of accidents or fatalities due to distracted driving. Opponents of hands-free laws argue that motorists can be distracted by a cellphone call regardless of whether or not they are holding the device. They would also argue that distracted driving is not just caused by cellphones but by eating and drinking, playing with the radio, streaming music, reading maps or GPS, arguing children, energetic pets or even personal grooming. On the flip side, a hands-free mandate would make it easier for law enforcement officials to enforce the 2010 Safe Driving Law because officials would not have to determine if an operator was texting or making a phone call. Recent studies have revealed that banning the use of hand-held devises while driving (the results are taken from a study of four jurisdictions, including Connecticut and the District of Columbia) has NOT reduced accident rates. The month to month changes in accident claims did not change before and after cell phone bans took effect. The study by the Highway Loss Data Institute found that in the states which banned hand-held cell use there was a significant reduction in hand-held phone use; but HLDI remains mystified as to why there is no corresponding drop in the accident rates.
Common sense suggests that the fewer distractions a driver has, the more alert the driver will be to changing road conditions. Massachusetts highways are crowded. Rush hour begins earlier and ends later. Weekend travel clogs the major airports and roadways. All major routes through Lynn, Lynnfield, Saugus and Peabody and other North Shore towns can come to a complete stop at any time of the day. Endless construction and changing lanes and travel patterns and severe weather all contribute to the challenge of safe driving.
Hands-free laws seem a sensible effort to minimize distraction but the statistics do not support the effort. For whatever reason, hands free laws aren’t working. The next step may be a total ban on only cell phone use while driving. Stay tuned.