Here it is Thanksgiving Day 2019, and I thought I’d post these thoughts before sitting down for dinner. Actually, I’ve made it a practice to contemplate on what I’m grateful for almost every day of the year that I can: It’s a smart habit to form.
On a professional level, as a Massachusetts car accident attorney, I’m grateful that – finally – a ban on hand-held cell phone use while driving has been signed into law. I’ve been publicly advocating for this for a few years now, and Gov. Charlie Baker finally signed the measure into law this past Monday. Very briefly, the new law’s provisions:
- Use of hand-held electronic devices while driving a motor vehicle – importantly, whether cell phones or otherwise – is banned beginning February 23, 2020. That’s 90 days after the law was signed by the governor, but the law provides a grace period through to March 31, 2020, which means that drivers who are cited for violation of the law prior to March 31, will receive a warning, not a fine. As a Boston injuries attorney who has seen far too many preventable injuries caused by driver cell phone use, I thought that this additional grace period was unnecessary, and represented too much of a politics-based concession to the members of the Flat Earth Society who claimed that drivers would “need time to adjust”. My immediate response: Please. No further comment needed. At any rate, from April 1, 2020 forward, violators will be hit with fines, as discussed further below. Aside from my observation above about the unnecessary ‘grace period’, inside each of the additional bullets below are my thoughts as an attorney who deals every day with accidents and injuries that are caused by Massachusetts distracted driving accidents.
- Drivers can make and receive phone calls while driving – only if they are using hands-free technology or a Bluetooth-enabled device. The new law also allows drivers to use “single tap or swipe” function to activate hands-free mode. Objection: Allowing drivers to continue to talk with other people who are not in the vehicle, by any means – hands-free or not, distracts the driver’s attention from the road. That can’t be avoided, and allowing hands-free cell phone use ignores this reality. These provisions were presented as “solutions” to the underlying problem of distracted driving, and in my professional view they are not solutions, but smokescreens presented as ‘solutions’. They will not solve the problem of distracted driving, which is mental distraction from the road. Obvious question: If a drivers holding something in their hands is the problem – if physicality is the issue here – then why don’t we ban holding coffees or similar while driving? The answer would be “Because holding a coffee doesn’t distract the driver’s thoughts and Attention from the road”. Correct. No further questions.
- As to texting, this activity was supposedly banned in legislation that was passed a couple of years ago, and it technically remains banned in this new law. But as usual, though, there is an exception: Drivers can read text messages and look at pictures or video, so long as they are viewing a device that ‘assists with navigation’, and is mounted in an ‘appropriate’ location such as the vehicle’s windshield, dashboard or center console. Objection: Exactly how are police supposed to enforce this? First, any law enforcement officer would need to be in a physical position to clearly see what was on the screen of a driver suspected to be texting – extremely unlikely while both vehicles are moving. Obvious reason: Many, if not most, drivers keep their phone held low enough that officers will as a practical reality have a very hard time clearly seeing this. But even if an officer did believe that he/she observed such a violation, a further practical problem is presented, which is: It typically takes at least 2-3 minutes for an officer to pull a driver over to a roadside to question the driver – giving the driver all that time to change the screen. How, then, can any officer who believes that he/she observed a violation, prove otherwise? This practical frustration alone will likely cause many officers to not even bother with a citation. Again, a theory-based ‘non-solution’ to a practicality-based problem.
- The new law becomes what is known as a “primary offense”. This means that drivers can be pulled over for just being observed using a hand-held phone or other electronic device. If the driver is then found by an officer to be in violation of any other motor vehicle laws – or any other laws such as Massachusetts drug laws or Massachusetts drunk driving laws – the officer can either issue a citation for those offenses, or make an arrest. In my professional view, this is justified in the interests of public safety.
- Penalties for violation(s): After the April 1, 2020 grace period ends, a first offense will cost drivers a $100 fine. Second offense: The fine increased to $250. Third offense and subsequent offenses: $500 each.
As an attorney who has seen far too many people injured as a result of distracted driving in Massachusetts, I’m glad that some measure was finally passed here. But for the key reasons discussed above in my objections, I feel that much of this law is a paper tiger. The problem is distracted driving on the whole – not what is in a driver’s hand, whether a coffee or a phone. Yes, obviously, it helps to keep drivers’ hands on the wheel when driving. But that does little good if we still allow people to concentrate on a phone conversation when driving, instead of requiring them to concentrate on the road.
If you or someone you know has been injured in a Massachusetts motor vehicle accident and has any legal questions you need answered, contact us or call us and we’d be glad to provide you a free phone consultation. In the meantime, be safe.