A new state law will go into effect next week that is intended to crack down on instances of distracted driving.
Starting Sunday, Feb. 23, the new hands-free driving law prohibits drivers from using any electronic device, including cell phones, unless the device is used in hands-free mode.
Drivers who are caught holding their cell phone from Sunday, Feb. 23 to Tuesday, March 31 will be given a warning by police before more severe punishments are implemented in April.
Prior to the new hands-free driving law, police officers have had their hands tied when issuing distracted driving citations due to cell phone use, said Stockbridge Police Chief Darrell Fennelly. Law enforcement had difficulty proving drivers were texting and driving, which resulted in citations for distracted driving getting thrown out in court, said Fennelly.
“The new law gives police a little more teeth to enforce it on drivers who are preoccupied with their electronics,” he said.
Included in the hands-free driving law is wording that prohibits drivers from “reading or viewing text, images or video displayed on a mobile electronic device.” However, drivers are allowed to view a map generated by a GPS navigation system that is mounted on or affixed to the vehicle’s windshield, dashboard or center console.
Fennelly said that the new law will encourage safer driving by being able to hand out enforceable distracted driving citations and by reminding drivers to remain concentrated behind the wheel. He said he expects a lot more distracted driving citations to be issued once the law goes into effect.
Drivers in violation of the hands-free driving law will be fined $100 for the first offense. Drivers will then see a $250 fine for the second offense and will be required to complete a distracted driving educational program. For the third and subsequent offenses, drivers will be fined $500, and will also see an insurance surcharge.
David Griffin, Jr., senior vice-president of the Holyoke-based insurance provider, The Dowd Agencies, said the consequences of not abiding by the new hands-free driving law is not something drivers should take lightly.
On the third and subsequent offenses, drivers will be assessed a two-point surcharge to their insurance records, which could result in a couple hundred dollars added to annual premiums, Griffin said.
He added that while technology in today’s vehicles have helped alleviate the number of car accidents occurring on the road, the technology in drivers’ hands and sightline have contributed to more severe accidents occuring due to distracted driving.
“On the insurance end of things, we’ve seen accidents are actually down over the last couple of years, based on lots of the technology cars have,” Griffin said. “The severity of accidents is way up. When people are getting into accidents, they are at higher rates of speed. They are causing more damage to other vehicles, the bodily injury paid out on claims are higher. A lot of the causes of the higher-speed accidents are from use of cell phones. People aren’t paying attention and they don’t stop in time, so they’re causing a lot of damage.”
Like the Stockbridge Police Department, Sheffield Police is also located along Route 7. When it comes to distracted driving in his jurisdiction, Sheffield Police Chief Eric Munson says he can spot it from a mile away.
“I could probably go up Route 7 right now and see five people driving while looking down,” said Munson. “What other reason do they have for driving and looking down?”
Munson also said he commonly sees pets in driver’s laps, prompting other drivers on the road to look over and be distracted by their immediate surroundings.
“They’re going down Route 7 at 60 miles per hour and they’ve got a little poodle in their lap with their head out the window catching a breeze,” he said. “I see that stuff all the time.”
Exempt from the new hands-free driving law are first responders, including police officers, firefighters and EMS, when they are responding to an emergency.
Signed into law on Nov. 25, 2019, by Gov. Charlie Baker, the hands-free law takes effect 90 days after passage and has reporting requirements for law enforcement officers who make traffic stops. Officers must make note of data, including the age, race and gender of individuals issued a warning or citation, according to the legislation.
The Registry of Motor Vehicles will house the data and the Secretary of Public Safety’s office will annually release the information to the public. The new law sets forth a process in the event there are suspicions a law enforcement entity may be engaging in racial profiling.