Kate McCabe / Gavel Media

Massachusetts Goes Hands-Free

“In an age of distraction, the new Massachusetts hands-free driving law encourages drivers to not just 'look up,' but also to keep their 'hands off.'"

Section 13B of the Title XIV statute on public ways, under Chapter 90 on motor vehicles and aircrafts, discusses the illegality of composing or reading electronic messages while driving. The statement applies to any electronic device, not just cell phones.

This law, which went into effect on Sunday, February 23, aims to decrease rates of distracted driving. Massachusetts currently is ranked among the top ten worst states in America for distracted driving.

Under the new hands-free driving law, drivers can only conduct phone calls and texts in hands-free mode. Drivers cannot look at photos unless they are to help with navigation, and are not permitted to check their phones at stoplights. Phone use is only permitted when a car is stationary and not located in a public travel lane.

The precautions are even stricter for newer drivers, as drivers under 18 are prohibited from using a phone even if they are in hands-free mode. That is, unless they want to receive a $100 penalty fine and a sixty day loss of license.

In terms of what drivers can do under the new law, it is legal to use the Bluetooth or speaker function on phones. Additionally, drivers can still use their phones in the event of an emergency and for navigation purposes. Drivers are also permitted to use one earbud to listen in hands-free mode as long as the other ear is free.

Under the new law, state and local police can pull someone over for the sole reason of the driver being on their phone.

Political Science Professor, Tim Crawford, expresses his happiness surrounding the new law, since distracted driving is a real problem. Additionally, he hopes that the new law will help traffic to flow more smoothly:

“I’m already pretty compliant [in not using my phone when driving],” Crawford said, “but with the new law, I will be even more compliant.”

There will be a grace period until the end of March, with penalties starting on April 1. First-time offenders will receive a $100 fine, repeat offenders will have to pay $250, and then $500 after their third offense. Additionally, after one offense, residents will have to complete a program focused on preventing distracted driving.

Caroline Viulliemer got her PhD in Applied Statistics at BC and is a current Group Fitness Instructor at the Margot Connell Recreation Center. Viulliemer, a Massachusetts resident, commented on how the new driving laws will impact her driving:

“Honestly, I feel like this law will make me a more thoughtful driver when it comes to my phone use,” Viulliemer, says. “I have had a dashboard mount for a long time and now that this law has gone into effect, I am making a concerted effort to put my phone in the mount right when I get in the car.”

Tom Riley, MCAS ’20, spoke about his own experience driving in Massachusetts under the new law, pointing out how, while the notion of the law is great, its enforcement must be considered:

“I think the new law will decrease the number of people using their phones while driving because of the fear of getting pulled over,” Riley says. “But I do think the law will be extremely hard to enforce in most areas. In the suburbs and on highways, I do not think it will be easy for police officers to spot when people are using their phones.” 

Riley offered his input on what he thinks will help the law to be effective, such as the implementation by MassDot of a video camera on the electronic toll gantries that would capture images of people using their phones:

“I think this idea is promising, but will most likely take a while to develop,” Riley says.

Similar measures have been taken around the world, including the implementation of cameras in New South Wales, Australia, to catch distracted drivers. With the problem being so global, Massachusetts is taking a step in the right direction in its implementation of this law.

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