As I’ve written about previously on both this blog and elsewhere, the Massachusetts Legislature finally woke up last fall and presented Gov. Charlie Baker with a bill with (supposedly) teeth in it to ban hand-held cell phone use in Massachusetts, and the Gov. signed it. After 90 days from signing, the law went into effect on February 23 2020 with what I regard as a needless grace period for offenders until March 31 – i.e., drivers in Massachusetts caught using hand-held cell phones while operating a motor vehicle will only be issued warnings until March 31. As of April 1, offenders will be fined according to a tiered structure (see below). Given the fact that the law was passed and signed with much fanfare and media publicity several months ago, as a Boston car accident lawyer I thought that this grace period was a needless concession to cell phone carriers, but the chief components of the new law are worth re-capping here.
This new law provides different restrictions and legal impacts for drivers over the age of eighteen, and drivers under eighteen.
Drivers who are age 18 or over:
- Are only allowed to use mobile phones, and/or other electronic devices, if the devices are in hands-free mode.
- Are forbidden from either holding or manually support any phone or electronic device while operating the vehicle
- Cannot touch the phone except to activate hands-free mode, and can only use hands-free when the phone or device is either “installed” or “properly mounted” to alternatively the windshield, dashboard, or center console “in a manner that does not impede the operation of the motor vehicle”.
- Cannot touch the device for texting, emailing, apps, video, or any internet use
- Can only activate GPS navigation when the device is installed or properly mounted (see above).
- An exception is provided for handheld use only if the vehicle is both stationary and not located in a public travel lane, but hand-held use is not allowed at red lights or stop signs
- Voice to text and communication to electronic devices is legal only when device is properly mounted; use of headphone (one ear) is permitted
For drivers under the age of 18:
- All cell phone use while driving is prohibited, whether in hands-free mode or not.
- Use of any other electronic devices is also prohibited.
Drivers both over and under age 18 will be allowed to hold a cell phone to dial 911 for an emergency but are advised, if possible, to pull over safely before doing so.
As of April 1, Massachusetts drivers violating the new hands-free law will be subject to a series of escalating fines, as follows:
- 1st offense – $100 fine
- 2nd offense – $250 fine, plus mandatory completion of a distracted driving educational program
- 3rd and subsequent offenses – $500 fine, plus insurance surcharge and mandatory completion of distracted driving educational program
In my view as a Massachusetts car and truck accident lawyer, this law falls under the category of “better than nothing”. The problem with it, is one of enforcement, on a practical level. For example, consider the terms of this new law, referenced above:
- The provision that drivers cannot either “hold or manually support” any phone or electronic device while operating the vehicle: Question: How could a police officer disprove a driver’s claim that he was not holding the phone to talk on it, but was trying to “mount” it to the windshield, dashboard or center console? Because that’s what many drivers who are caught in hand-held mode are going to say.
- The provision that drivers cannot touch the phone except to activate hands-free mode, and can only use hands-free when the phone or device is either “installed” or “properly mounted” to alternatively the windshield, dashboard, or center console “in a manner that does not impede the operation of the motor vehicle”. Question: What does “properly mounted” mean, legally? What does “installed” mean, legally? And what does “in a manner that does not impede the operation of the motor vehicle” mean,legally?
- The provision that says drivers cannot touch the device for texting, emailing, apps, video, or any internet use. Question: When drivers cited for this specific violation claim that they were “touching” the phone only in order to put the device into hands-free mode, how will law enforcement be able to prove otherwise?
None of these terms are adequately defined. My point: Expect offenders to come up with a lot of fabricated stories and excuses, and not a small amount of court challenges to these terms will follow. The end result may be that the law’s provisions could be ruled by judges as being impermissibly vague, and thus unenforceable. That will put the legislature back to the drawing table.
I make these observations because I’ve represented far too many clients who have suffered horrific and life-altering injuries in Massachusetts motor vehicle accidents caused by cell phone use while driving. I don’t want the people I care about to become the next victims, I don’t want to be the next victim, and I don’t want you to be the next victim. So please, urge everyone you know to obey this law. If you have any questions about this new law or about Massachusetts motor vehicle accidents in general, feel free to call us at the phone number on this page, or send us a contact form.