Ever been stopped for “DWT” (driving while texting)? How about “DWC” (driving while calling)? If the state House of Representatives has its way, then Massachusetts residents could join motorists in many other states in facing fines and “surchargeable” offenses if they are caught using a hand-held cell phone or text messaging while driving.
Ever been stopped for “DWT” (driving while texting)? How about “DWC” (driving while calling)?
If the state House of Representatives has its way, then Massachusetts residents could join motorists in many other states in facing fines and “surchargeable” offenses if they are caught using a hand-held cell phone or text messaging while driving.
But House Bill No. 4477 is facing resistance in the Senate and may not come up for discussion.
State Sen. Robert Hedlund explained that Senate leadership has not given any indication it intends to bring it up for debate and has not put the bill on the calendar. If it is not taken up by July 31, the chances of the bill gaining any traction are nil.
“I don’t like the bill,” said Hedlund, who represents Hingham and seven other South Shore towns. “But I have no problem doing what I am paid to do and have it come up for debate.”
Hedlund’s objection to the legislation is making cell phone use “surchargeable” — a provision that he describes as a “kiss for the insurance companies” that would benefit from higher rates.
“I am an avid cyclist and am more cognizant than most of the potential threat from some elderly drivers, young drivers and distracted drivers,” he said. “I do not have an objection to restrictions – it is the insurance surcharge that completely turns me off.”
He explained there is already a law on the books that police can use to stop motorists for using a cell phone. The “impeded operation” law requires the user of a CB radio or cell phone keep one hand on the steering wheel.
State Rep. Garrett Bradley, who represents Hingham, Cohasset, Hull and one precinct in Scituate, says while there are already laws dealing with distracted driving – the level of cell phone use while operating a motor vehicle puts it into in a class of its own.
“The level of people utilizing cell phones while driving is so great – that it needs special classification,” Bradley said. “That is why I voted for the bill.”
Bradley joined 106 other representatives from across the Commonwealth in voting for a bill last month that would ban junior operators (those under 18) from using cell phones while driving and require adults to use only hands-free communication devices. Forty-seven representatives did not back the legislation.
The legislation would mean that junior operators could not use a cell phone or hands-free cell phone and adults could use cell phones if equipped with hands-free gadgets, like earpieces or headsets. All drivers would also be banned from “texting.” Adult drivers would be allowed to use their hands to initiate (dial) or terminate (hang up) from a call. The legislation recognizes that all drivers need two hands to operate a motor vehicle.
Bradley explained that the House allowed “ramp-up time” should the bill pass deferring the implementation of surcharges for a year.
Hedlund has no problem with restricting cell phone use for junior operators. As a member of the Conference Committee in 2006 charged with finalizing a bill on junior operator restrictions, he backed a ban on cell phones but was outvoted on that measure.
“The reason why I supported that was that I have seen the data on the prevalence of accidents among teen drivers and that they are the most susceptible to distractions,” Hedlund said.
Hedlund also said he is concerned that police might give motorists a break and not apply the law even-handedly because the offense would translate into an insurance surcharge.
Hingham police spokesman Lt. Michael Peraino said police endeavor to be fair when enforcing any law. “ We would do the same with this one,” he said.
Peraino said Hingham police support the legislation. He said officers working traffic details have a front-row seat on distracted drivers.
“When directing traffic they are noticing motorists on cell phones who do not even see the officer with a hand up to stop and they drive right through,” Peraino said. He said text-messaging is even more distracting for drivers.
Art Kinsman, AAA of Southern New England director of government affairs, said text messaging while driving is clearly dangerous. A person texting is typing on a tiny keyboard, taking his hands and eyes off the road for extended and repeated periods of time.
Kinsman said talking on a cell phone is also a distraction, albeit a lesser one, but the reason is surprising and tends to debunk the idea that requiring hands-free devices will solve the safety problem.
“We’ve found it’s the conversation itself that’s the real distraction,” he said.How’s that different from talking to a passenger?
It may not be that different, Kinsman said. There are all sorts of distractions drivers need to be on the alert for, many of them decidedly low-tech, such as eating or turning around to yell at the kids in the back seat, he said.
Kinsman said voice-recognition technology would obviously make dialing safer, but he said there may be an unintended consequence. As cell phone use becomes easier, it may become even more pervasive.
His advice: “We tell people, keep it short, and if it’s going to be a lengthy conversation, find some place safe to pull over.”
Jessica Foley, an attorney specializing in juvenile and criminal defense with the firm Sullivan and Sweeney with an office in Hingham, said hands free devices are a good idea, as it is an attempt to prevent accidents by distracted drivers.
“However, I would imagine that unless drivers have updated technology and/or are tech savvy they are going to look down to dial their telephone, and this is when they will be most distracted.
“It is an attempt to prevent accidents by distracted drivers,” Foley said. “But I’m not sure that the supporters of the cell phone ban have thought through the law’s impact. It will increase license suspensions for junior operators (drivers between 16-1/2 and 18), but perhaps it will keep them safer.
“This law will increase ticket revenues for our cities and towns, increase insurance surcharges and also give law enforcement yet another reason to conduct traffic stops,” she said.
At least five states have banned hand-held devices, including California, whose law goes into effect July 1.
Reporters Rebecca Hyman and Paula Vogler contributed to this story.