Bill that would ban you from touching your phone while driving gains traction

A bill that would only allow hands-free cell phone use while driving cleared the House this week. If passed, motorists could only use their phones in case of emergency.
A bill that would only allow hands-free cell phone use while driving cleared the House this week. If passed, motorists could only use their phones in case of emergency. –Damian Dovarganes / AP

A bill that would prohibit drivers from using hand-held cell phones while operating a vehicle received initial approval from the Massachusetts House of Representatives on Tuesday.

Rep. William Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat, submitted the bill (H. 3315), which would require drivers to use a hands-free mobile technology, such as Bluetooth, to communicate while driving. It now requires another supporting vote in the House and passage in the Senate to move forward. With no clear opposition to the measure, the bill appears likely to reach Governor Baker’s desk.

A request for comment from Rep. Straus’s office was not immediately returned.

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What it means for drivers

In 2010, Massachusetts passed a law that banned texting while driving for all motorists. The law also banned all cell phone use for drivers under age 18. However, this law has been criticized for being ineffective and extremely difficult for police officers to enforce. That’s because drivers are still legally allowed to make phone calls, check a phone’s GPS, or listen to voicemail. Drivers are only required to show police their cell phones when the officers have a warrant.

Under the bill, drivers could still use their phones in case of emergency. The bill allows for the use of a cell phone if the driver’s car breaks down, if medical attention is required, if police, fire, or emergency services are needed, or if there is an accident or disabled vehicle on a roadway.

Language in the bill indicates drivers must “produce evidence’’ that a cell phone was used while driving was due to an emergency situation. However, it does not clearly indicate what penalties offenders could face if they’re caught breaking the law.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, a non-profit group devoted to improving transportation and highway safety, 14 states and the District of Columbia currently ban all drivers from using hand-held cell phones behind the wheel.

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website Distraction.gov indicates there were over 3,100 motor vehicle fatalities related to distracted driving in 2013.

Does hands-free mean risk-free?

Mary Maguire, public affairs and legislative director for AAA Northeast, testified in support of the bill at the State House last month. She says the bill is necessary to give more power to the state’s current anti-texting laws.

“Texting and driving has reached epidemic proportions in Massachusetts,’’ said Maguire in a phone call. “We feel it has become so difficult to enforce the critically important texting ban, that the only alternative to enforce it is to take the phones out of people’s hands.’’

However, Maguire also acknowledged the bill is not a “total solution.’’ Last month, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety published a study that found hands-free technology can still be distracting for drivers. The study found hands-free car technologies – including voice activation systems and hands-free texting systems – can mentally distract drivers for up to 27 seconds.

“We know from the AAA Foundation’s study that hands-free is not risk free,’’ she said. Even so, she still believes the law will help keep motorists and pedestrians safe by forcing drivers to evaluate their own behavior.

“Getting phones out of people’s hands forces us to say to ourselves, ‘do I need to make this call or can the call wait?’’’ said Maguire. “I think passing a hands-free bill forces drivers to take stock of their behavior behind the wheel.’’

A greater risk?

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David Ropeik, an instructor at the Harvard University Extension School and consultant who focuses on the psychology of risk, says the law is misguided. Last month, Ropeik wrote an opinion piece for The Boston Globe that said hands-free cell phone systems actually increase the risks from driving.

The problem, he says, is hands-free technologies give drivers a false sense that they have greater control over their vehicles and are now driving distraction-free. But mental distractions, which are the largest problem, can still linger even if drivers keep their hands on the wheel.

“Drivers think they’re safer but are just as distracted, and drive with less precaution,’’ said Ropeik in a phone interview.

In his essay, Ropeik says the law sounds good because it is intended to make roads safer. But he points to a 5-year old study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that found laws that ban the use of cell phones while driving didn’t really reduce crashes.

“The problem is the ‘hands-free’ nature of the legislature’s [proposed] change does nothing to make drivers’ behavior change,’’ he said. In fact, Ropeik said the law’s intended effect of making roads safer could backfire because drivers who already engage in risky behavior will continue to do so and do even riskier things to hide their activity.

“People who don’t have a hands-free device in their car but want to talk on the phone still will,’’ said Ropeik. “They will become worse drivers because they’ll try to hide it because it’s illegal. They wont’ stop. As they try to conceal it, they become worse drivers.’’

A more effective solution would be to mandate technology that render cell phones inoperable while a car is running, Ropeik said, but he realizes this idea is unlikely to be picked up by lawmakers.

“There are more effective solutions, but they are more draconian and politically unpopular,’’ he said.

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