Massachusetts’ new hands-free driving law takes effect this Sunday, February 23rd.
The law, signed by Governor Charlie Baker in November, is intended to reduce the number of distracted driving injuries and deaths in the state. It imposes penalties enforced by local and state police, including possible surcharges on a driver’s insurance after the third or subsequent violation.
“Our administration is committed to keeping Massachusetts roads safe, and we urge all drivers to pay attention when they are behind the wheel,” Baker said in a press release issued by his office. “This law holds drivers accountable for keeping their focus on the road while being aware of the vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists around them, and we are pleased that it will take effect this week.”
The law, An Act Requiring The Hands-Free Use Of Mobile Telephones While Driving, means drivers can’t use an electronic device while operating a vehicle unless the device is being used in hands-free mode. Drivers also can’t read or view texts, images or videos, unless they’re being used to assist in navigation with the device mounted in an appropriate location.
Motorists are also prohibited from making phone calls unless they can do so with hands-free technology such as Bluetooth. The use of phones and all electronic devices, including phones in hands-free mode, remains illegal for drivers under the age of 18.
“The hands-free law will help increase road safety for all users, including pedestrians and bicyclists, who have the fastest growing rate of crashes caused by inattentive drivers,” said Lt. Governor Karyn Polito in the release. “If you are behind the wheel, your attention should be on the road.”
The law requires law enforcement officers to report data on violations that will be shared with the public. Punishment for violating the hands-free law includes a $100 fine for a first offense, a $250 fine for a second offense and a $500 fine for a third or subsequent offense.
Motorists who commit a second or subsequent offense are required to complete an educational program focused on distracted driving prevention. A third or subsequent offense will count as a surchargeable incident on a driver’s insurance.
Massachusetts State Police will have extra patrols to enforce the law.
Under the new hands-free driving law, vehicles without built-in GPS, Apple Car Play, or Android Audio are required to be equipped with a phone mount on the dash or windshield for GPS navigation.
Total traffic fatalities in Massachusetts increased 12.8% from 2015 to 2016, more than double the national rate of increase of 5.6%, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS).
Between 2014 and 2018, there were 233 deaths in Massachusetts due to crashes involving a distracted driver. In fact, annual crashes involving a distracted driver in Massachusetts have risen 35.7%, from 28 in 2014 to 38 in 2018, and 78 pedestrians were killed in Massachusetts in 2018. That represents an increase of 8.3% pedestrian deaths in Massachusetts from 2017, according to FARS data.
“There’s no magic bullet,” McDonald said. “We’re still going to have accidents and incidences with distracted driving out there, but I think this [new legislation] really calls attention to the issue. And any time we can call attention to distracted driving, it should prevent or certainly reduce the severity of accidents out there.”
The hands-free legislation is one proposal included in a comprehensive road-safety package filed earlier this year by the Baker-Polito Administration. That proposal includes measures to improve work zone safety, require the use of ignition interlock devices for first-time offenders, and create a framework to regulate new technology like electronic scooters and other low-speed mobility devices.