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How Safe Is The Massachusetts Safe Driving Law?

Is this motorist breaking the Massachusetts Safe Driving Law? Not necessarily.
Ed Brown/Wikimedia Commons

Throughout 2017, WGBH News is taking a look at Massachusetts laws that went on the books with a measure of fanfare, asking whether they’ve lived up to the hype and had the results the Legislature intended.

This week, as lawmakers hold a hearing on several bills that would make all cell-phone use hands free, reporter Adam Reilly revisits the Massachusetts Safe Driving Law, which passed in 2010 and hasn’t quite worked out the way many supporters hoped it would.

If you’re like me, your feelings about distracted driving tend to be inconsistent. When someone else does it — like the dozens of people I see every week on the Massachusetts Pike Westbound staring at their phones as their vehicles zoom along at 70 mph — I get absolutely livid.

But then, on a snail-paced morning commute, I stop for yet another red light. I eyeball my phone, sitting enticingly in the passenger seat just a few inches away. And I’m tempted to send a quick email, or scan Twitter, or check Facebook — anything to break the monotony.

Succumbing to any of those temptations would mean breaking the Massachusetts Safe Driving Law, which passed in 2010 and says drivers can’t send or read any electronic messages. That term is broadly defined and includes emails, texts, instant messages, and “command[s] or request[s] to access an internet site.”

The objects of my hostility on the Pike might be on firmer legal footing, however, because the Safe Driving Law doesn’t ban phone calls. It also allows the use of GPS devices, as well as apps like Google Maps and Waze, provided the mobile device in question is somehow attached to the car.  

That’s why Emily Stein, who heads the advocacy group Safe Roads Alliance, is convinced the Safe Driving Law isn’t working. She believes those loopholes are nonsensical — and that they make it harder to enforce the restrictions that do exist.

“If a police officer pulls somebody over for manipulating their phone, and they say, ‘Oh, I’m just using GPS,' they can’t get a ticket, unless they were driving erratically,” Stein said.

Stein’s take on the issue is informed by personal tragedy: In 2011, her father was killed by a distracted driver.

“He was a contractor, and had debris in the back of his truck,” she said. “He pulled over to secure the tarp, to make sure everything was staying in the truck — and that’s when a driver was programming her GPS while driving on the highway.”   

Despite the challenges posed by ambiguity about legal and illegal use, police in Massachusetts seem to be working to enforce the Safe Driving Law. According to the state Department of Transportation, the number of citations for reading and sending electronic messages went from 1,100 in 2011 to roughly 8,600 last year.

But in West Bridgewater, which is known for aggressive enforcement, police chief Victor Flaherty says the fight feels unwinnable.  

“I mean, we’ve had people on motorcycles texting — right in front of them, on the handlebars, texting or Facebooking,” Flaherty said. “This law that we have right now — the distracted driving law, as written — you might as well get rid of it.”

A few times every year, West Bridgewater runs a distracted driving sting. Because individual officers can find it challenging to follow one driver long enough to establish they’re using a phone improperly, the West Bridgewater Police Department has some officers serve as spotters. They identify likely culprits, then contact their colleagues, who pull the suspects over if they’re still screen-bound a few minutes later.

And yet, Flaherty says, the behavior simply continues.

“We’ve been doing this five years, and the numbers aren’t stopping,” he said. “The numbers are going up!” 

Definitive statewide numbers are hard to come by. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation tells WGBH News that of 359 traffic fatalities in 2014, just two were caused by distracted driving — less than one percent.

Yet the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that same year, distraction played a role in 10 percent of fatal crashes and 18 percent of injury crashes nationwide.

Despite that quantitative uncertainty, there’s widespread agreement that the Safe Driving Law needs an update. Both Stein and Flaherty believe that requiring all cell phone use be hands-free would be a significant improvement, even though some risk of distraction would still exist

State Representative Joseph Wagner — who was the Safe Driving Law’s lead sponsor when it passed seven years ago — also wants to see the 2010 law broadened.

“There’s been just an explosion of texting on our roadways,” Wagner said. “Every driver of a car knows that. We all see it. We all experience it.”

“Just this morning, I had a car on a residential street as I was dropping my son off at school in the middle of the road — with plenty of room on the right, but coming at me — and I had to get well over to the right, right against the curb,” Wagner said. “[I] went to give the driver a look … and the driver wasn’t looking up. The driver was looking down.”

Back in 2010, Wagner’s original bill called for a hands-free provision, but it was stripped out during the legislative process.

To become a reality today, a new bill would have to pass both the Senate and the House, where a hands-free bill died last year. And it might need enough support to weather a veto by Gov. Charlie Baker, who’s said that forcing low-income drivers to buy Bluetooth technology would be burdensome.

“Connecticut bans [handheld phones],” Wagner said. “Fourteen states and the District of Columbia ban hand-held cell phones. I think Massachusetts should be part of that.”

In the interim, if you think the Safe Driving Law doesn’t go far enough — but you’ve also seen your own vigilance slip in moments of boredom or weakness — your best option might be exercising a bit more self-restraint. 

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