Boston, MA– Confession: I do not have a hands-free phone system in my car. I drive an old Nissan Versa that is always on the verge of breaking down. So, when I need to make a call in the car, I do the responsible thing and tell Siri to call the number. I still end up holding the phone with one hand while I drive with the other.
Last week, I called my sister on my way to the grocery store. She lives in Rhode Island, and when she heard I was driving (she’s aware of my low-tech car situation), she said, “Isn’t that illegal now?”
It is, in Rhode Island, where hand-held phones are banned for all drivers. It’s also illegal in Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont. So, in all the states surrounding Massachusetts.
In the U.S., 16 states have banned hand-held phones for all drivers (and 38 states have banned all cell phone use for drivers under a certain age). There is more consistent legislation about texting while driving, which is banned in 47 states, including Massachusetts. However, some say that the texting bans are difficult for police to enforce while it’s still legal to use a hand-held phone when driving, because it’s hard to tell if a driver is texting or just making a call.
So why is Massachusetts the holdout among its neighbors in passing legislation to make hand-held cell phones illegal? It's not because research says hands-free devices are no less dangerous, and it’s not for lack of trying. The state Senate approved two different bills in 2016 and 2017 that would have banned hand-helds, but neither of these bills passed the House. Several congressmen including House Speaker Robert DeLeo did not support the measures over fears that the enforcement of the cell phone laws would unfairly target minorities. Other reasons for the previous bills’ failure include concerns about the affordability of hands-free technology. This was one of the reasons why Governor Charlie Baker originally opposed banning hand-held devices.
Baker changed his mind in recent years, saying the technology has become more affordable, and he recently put forward his own road safety bill in January 2019 which would require drivers to use bluetooth or other hands-free technology to talk on the phone while driving. It would also impose a fine of $100, with $250 for a second offense, and any additional offenses at $500 if incurred within six years. The third offense would also mandate an additional insurance fee.
We’ll see if this newest bill with Baker’s backing goes through. It may just be a matter of time before Massachusetts joins its neighbors in banning hand-held phones for all drivers. However, even if that happens, we may find that there's little impact on distracted driving accidents. The National Safety Council recommends banning all cell phone use, as distracted driving is still an issue with hands-free devices.