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.
Colonel Christopher S. Mason, superintendent of the Massachusetts State Police, said in the release that Massachusetts State Police and local police departments will roll extra patrols to kick off enforcement of the hands-free law.
“But our hope is that all drivers will comply with this important law and keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel,” Mason said in the release. “There is nothing on your screen that is worth your life or the life of another.”
How the Insurance Industry Can Help
Pat McDonald, MAPFRE USA’s Northeast region CEO, spoke with Insurance Journal about the role the insurance industry, especially independent agents, can play in educating clients about the new legislation and how to ensure compliance.
“We have communicated the information regarding the hands-free law going into effect and what the issues are surrounding that to all of our customers where we have an email address,” he said. “I think other companies are [as well], and equally as important, are the independent agencies that many of the customers work with out there in just communicating the message.”
MAPFRE Insurance, headquartered in Webster, Mass., has a network of more than 5,000 independent agents and brokers and offers insurance solutions for homes and vehicles with a presence in 14 U.S. states. It is owned by the MAPFRE Foundation, a global nonprofit organization based in Madrid, Spain.
McDonald explained that road safety is one of the five core principles of the MAPFRE Foundation. In September, it held Look Both Ways, a program that supports the City of Boston’s Vision Zero Boston program in which a focus is placed on proven strategies to eliminate fatal and serious traffic crashes in the city by 2030. The Look Both Ways program was a collaborative effort between Mayor Martin J. Walsh, the Boston Transportation Department and the MAPFRE Foundation to launch an interactive public action campaign and reinforce critical road safety rules in the city.
Additionally, MAPFRE has a relationship with In Control, a non-profit organization that offers state certified crash prevention training to all drivers. MAPFRE offers a discount for those who successfully complete In Control’s driver’s training program.
“I put both of my kids through that program when they were young and thought so highly of it that I continue to recommend that program,” McDonald said. “And it’s really a program that a lot of the industry supports, not just MAPFRE.”
Beyond insurers, McDonald encouraged insurance consumers and all drivers to “keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road” in order to reduce distracted driving injuries and fatalities.
“We all drive by an accident, and you can see that one car rear-ended the other car, and you know what happened,” he said. “Somebody was on their phone. We need to prevent that going forward to reduce the accidents out there.”
Massachusetts Distracted Driving Crashes on the Rise
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.
For motorists not using hands-free technology, the EOPSS Office of Grants and Research advises drivers to turn phones off or set them to do not disturb mode and place them out of reach while driving. It also advises drivers to pull over when making calls or sending texts, to watch for pedestrians and bicyclists at all times, especially at night, and to always wear a seat belt.
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.
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