My cell phone doesn’t ring while I’m driving, and my incoming texts don’t beep or chime. The only sounds in my car these days come from my radio or from the street where impatient Bostonians are blasting their horns. And because my phone is not ringing, I’m no longer fishing the phone out of my purse to see who’s calling or texting. I know nobody can reach me. Several months ago, I signed up for an app, which automatically blocks incoming calls and texts while I’m driving. It’s the latest tool in the campaign to prevent distracted driving, especially from texting. Texting while driving is so common now that one in four car accidents in the country is linked to it, and that number is growing.

Of course, I’d heard the warnings about distracted driving before I took this step, but like a lot of other people, I thought they didn’t apply to me since I was always careful and judicious. After all, I never texted while the car was moving, only while paused at red lights. Then I’d read and send brief texts and even make the occasional quick phone call. If I wasn’t done talking by the time the light turned green, I’d turn the speaker on to continue my conversation hands-free. I was obeying the 2010 Massachusetts law which banned texting while driving. I wasn’t moving when I texted and though not required, my conversations were hands-free. Legal and safe, right? Wrong. Texting at a red light is still texting, still distracted driving. Susan Moses, director of communication at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says research confirms it takes a full 27 to 30 seconds to “stop what you’re doing and refocus.”  

I’ve been thinking a lot about that as I make my way through the dense holiday traffic and observe — with horror — Bay State motorists juggling a myriad of activities while behind the wheel. Gov. Baker even changed his mind about the new hands-free cell phone law passed by the Senate a few months ago. He first saw it as unnecessary extra regulation, but just before Thanksgiving, the governor changed his mind and instead pressed lawmakers in the House to mandate hands-free technology. Bluetooth technology allows for hands-free, but the new law would make it illegal to hold the phone and text. Drivers who violate the law would be fined up to $500. This would substantially strengthen current law, but I don’t think it is a strong enough deterrent when nationwide, 1.6 million crashes are linked to texting and driving, and in Massachusetts alone, the number of deaths linked to distracted driving has gone up 15 percent in the last three years.

It’s critical that Beacon Hill lawmakers up the punitive ante for distracted drivers. And they should also include positive reinforcement for good behavior. Maybe giving a perk to those who either sign up for or activate a plan like mine that automatically shuts off the phone when the car is moving. Emergency calls can be programmed to override it. You’d be surprised how easy it is to become accustomed to a quieter, less distracted drive — and by the relief which comes with knowing that you will not be an instrument of a preventable tragedy.