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Safe driving law applies to more than just texting behind wheel

Rachel Kaprielian, registrar of motor vehicles, discussed the new law targeting distracted driving, in Weymouth yesterday. Rachel Kaprielian, registrar of motor vehicles, discussed the new law targeting distracted driving, in Weymouth yesterday. (Bill Greene/ Globe Staff)
By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / September 30, 2010

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Q. What are the basic provisions of the new Safe Driving law?

A. The law bans texting at the wheel for all drivers and prohibits all forms of cellphone use, including hands-free calls, by drivers under 18. It creates a fine of $500 for MBTA and other public transportation operators caught using phones; that fine is on top of whatever penalty the transit agencies impose. The law has provisions that make it easier to restrict the driving privileges of some elderly drivers, as well as drivers who are cited multiple times for moving violations.

Q. When does the law take effect?

A. It already has, just after midnight this morning.

Q. What are the penalties?

A. A driver under 18, also known as a junior operator, cited for using a mobile phone will receive a $100 fine and have his or her license suspended for 60 days for a first offense. That driver must also complete an “attitudinal retraining’’ course, pay another $100 reinstatement fee, and retake the state’s permit and road tests before regaining his or her license. The penalty for a second offense is a $250 fine and a 180-day suspension, while a third or subsequent offense brings a $500 fine and one-year suspension.

For a driver over 18, the penalty for texting is $100 for a first offense, $250 for a second offense, and $500 for a third or subsequent offense.

Q. I know texting at the wheel is a bad idea, so I try to limit myself to reading messages while driving and to replying only at red lights. Am I OK?

A. No. The law prohibits reading a text message, as well as writing or sending one. That is the case for any driver at the wheel of a motor vehicle unless that vehicle “is stationary and not located in a part of the public way intended for travel’’ or unless the phone call or text is to report an accident or disabled vehicle, seek medical attention, or otherwise notify police, fire, or safety officials in an emergency.

Q. How does the state define “texting’’? Can I still e-mail from my phone while driving, or Google the name of a song I just heard on the radio?

A. No. The state has banned not just text messages, but any “electronic message,’’ which it defines as “digital communication that is designed or intended to be transmitted between a mobile electronic device and any other electronic device,’’ including but not limited to “electronic mail, electronic message, a text message, an instant message, a command or request to access an Internet site, or any message that includes a keystroke entry sent between mobile devices.’’

Q. I followed you up until the “mobile electronic device’’ part. What’s that?

A. That’s legal language designed to include more than just cellphones in the new law. It covers “any handheld or other portable electronic equipment capable of providing data communication between two or more persons, including, without limitation, a mobile telephone, a text messaging device, a paging device, a personal digital assistant, a laptop computer, electronic equipment that is capable of playing a video game or digital video disk, equipment on which digital photographs are taken or transmitted or any combination thereof, or equipment that is capable of visually receiving a television broadcast; provided, however, that mobile electronic device shall not include any audio equipment or any equipment installed, or affixed, either temporarily or permanently, in a motor vehicle for the purpose of providing navigation or emergency assistance to the operator of such motor vehicle or video entertainment to the passengers in the rear seats of such motor vehicle.’’

Q. Can I still enter addresses into my GPS while driving, whether it’s a dedicated unit or a navigation app on my smartphone?

A. The new law appears to create an exemption for that behavior. However, police officers may stop motorists if the typing looks like texting, and the officers may issue $100 citations. They have been instructed to use discretion and to make decisions based on their experience and training, said David Procopio, a spokesman for the State Police.

Also, if officers do not wish to cite GPS users under the texting law, they could choose to write $35 citations using an existing law that covers a wide range of “unsafe operation,’’ a blanket provision that can be applied to anything from wearing headphones while driving to operating a truck with an unsecured child in the truck bed.

The Registry of Motor Vehicles said the use of GPS applications on smartphones is not a violation of the law.

Q. If this Safe Driving law is meant to address distracted driving, does it say anything about nonphone distractions like applying makeup?

A. No. But such distractions are technically covered already under the “unsafe operation’’ law. They could also be charged under the more serious “negligent operation’’ law in the event of an accident.

Q. Are the cellphone penalties civil or criminal offenses? And will they cause my insurance to go up?

A. The penalties are almost all civil offenses and do not trigger insurance surcharges. The exception is if you are involved in a crash caused by mobile phone use that results in injury or property damage. In that case, there is a new clause under the state’s negligent operation criminal laws allowing a 60-day suspension for a first offense, with a $500 reinstatement fee. The penalties for subsequent offenses or for junior operators involved in phone-related crashes that causes injuries or damage are even steeper.

Q. Can the police pull me over if they see me texting, or do I have to be committing another violation in the process, like speeding?

A. The new violations are considered primary offenses, meaning that police can pull drivers over when they suspect it.

Q. Wasn’t the texting law combined with legislation about older drivers? What does this law say about seniors?

A. Lawmakers considered making seniors renew more frequently or take special tests, but stopped short of those measures, making only one change for drivers over 75. All drivers must renew every five years, but until now have been allowed to renew online every other time. Drivers over 75 are no longer allowed to renew online. Lawmakers hoped the requirement to visit a Registry branch and take a vision test would make the least fit senior drivers think twice before renewing.

Q. What if I think someone is no longer fit to drive?

A. The state has a program that allows people to notify the Registry if they have “good faith’’ reason to think someone, of any age, is unfit to drive for physical or mental reasons. The new law is supposed to encourage health care providers and police officers to feel more comfortable filing such confidential reports by protecting them from lawsuits. The law does not shield concerned children or neighbors who notify the Registry.

The Registry has 30 days following a report to review a driver’s mental and physical capacity to be on the road, consulting regulations developed by a medical advisory board to the Registry.

Q. Anything else I should know?

A. The law is also designed to remove problem drivers from the road faster and to encourage people to drive more carefully, by reducing the number of “surchargeable incidents’’ that trigger license suspension. Until now, a driver involved in five incidents in three years faced suspension unless he or she completed the National Safety Council’s eight-hour retraining course. Now the course-or-suspension trigger is three incidents in two years.

A surchargeable incident is anything that causes insurance premiums to rise, including at-fault accidents and speeding tickets, though not the new cellphone tickets. It is possible to be assessed multiple times on one citation. For example, a driver stopped and cited for speeding, failure to yield, and a marked lane violation in one fell swoop would immediately be over the limit.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

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