Jim Davis/Globe Staff
WEYMOUTH -- With a ban on texting while driving taking effect just after midnight tonight, state officials and advocates gathered today to highlight the law and the dangers of distracted driving -- punctuated by the sound of screeching tires at a crash-prevention school.
"We're all here to ensure that our roads will be safer," Registrar of Motor Vehicles Rachel Kaprielian said of the law that prohibits texting for all drivers and that bans all cellphone use by drivers under 18.
Starting tomorrow, drivers caught texting will face a $100 fine for a first offense. A junior operator -- a driver under 18 -- cited for using a cellphone in any way will receive the fine as well as a 60-day license suspension and will be required to take an "attitudinal retraining" course and pay an additional $100 fee to reinstate his or her license.
"The penalties are stiff," Kaprielian said, hoping drivers will quickly get the message about the dangers posed by cellphones and other distractions, which caused an estimated 5,500 fatalities and nearly 450,000 injuries nationwide last year, according to federal statistics.
Kaprielian and a host of other state and federal officials and safe-driving advocates appeared beneath a "Texting While Driving is Against the Law" banner on the tarmac at the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station, where an open expanse of asphalt is now used by In Control, a driver training program, which followed the speakers with a demonstration.
The registrar said she hoped the threat of the penalties, coupled with visible enforcement and public education, will bring real change in driver behavior.
But cellphone use has become a mainstay -- as if on cue, Secretary of Transportation Jeffrey Mullan's BlackBerry rang during the presentation -- and many drivers are wedded to their mobile electronic devices. Secretary of Public Safety Mary Elizabeth Heffernan acknowledged as much, even as she called distracted driving "a scourge" and "a serious threat to public safety."
"It is imperative that we crack down on distracted driving, whether it is visual, manual, or cognitive. Texting requires all three, as I know personally," said Heffernan, who was joined by several members of the State Police. "And it's going to be hard for me to stop. But my daughter has made me promise that I will do so, and she's on me every day about it, so believe me -- I will do so."
The law makes texting a primary offense -- meaning officers can pull over motorists when they spot the behavior -- and creates exceptions only for emergency communication and for drivers who are "stationary and not located in a part of the public way intended for travel."
The officials were joined by Jerry Cibley of Foxborough and Melissa Martin of Southbridge, each of whom lost a teenage child to a car crash attributed to their children's cellphone use, and Scott Mascetta, a 26-year-old from Woburn who suffered a traumatic brain injury when a driver on a cellphone -- likely texting -- rear-ended him at full speed in Attleboro.
"The law is a start, and for this I am grateful," said Cibley, who has become an advocate for tough laws against cellphone use while driving since his son, Jordan, was killed in 2007. "But my son would not have been saved by this law, because he was over 18. Saving lives is about more than legislation. It will require the cooperation of law enforcement, driver's ed programs, and parents."
A number of studies have shown that cellphone use decreases response times and increases crash risk, including a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study that found drivers are 23.2 times more likely to crash while they are texting than when they are focused on the road.
In Control illustrated the difference with a pair of demonstrations on a closed course on the tarmac. In one, drivers at highway speed were instructed to brake when they saw red lights on their dashboard -- simulating brake lights ahead of them -- and to do so again while trying to text. In each case, the texting driver slammed on the brakes too late to avoid plowing through a bank of cones set up next to a silhouette of a child and a dog.
In the second exercise, drivers following a leader on an adjacent track were told to stop when the leader stops, with and without texting. Daniel Strollo, president of In Control, narrated the drill, explaining that stopping just before the bumper would earn a passing grade, stopping at the bumper would mean a fender bender, and stopping halfway down would mean an ambulance, and so on. In each case, the texting driver screeched past the lead car and would have smashed through a real obstacle.
"That's two for two on hearse rides, folks," Strollo said.
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