OP-ED: Details of Hands Free Cell Phone Bill Being Considered at State House

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State Sen. Will Brownsberger

The following piece was provided by State Sen. Will Brownsberger, D – Belmont, who also represents Watertown and parts of Boston:

On Nov. 18, House and Senate conferees filed their report on the hands-free cell phone safety bill. The bill is virtually certain to be approved by both branches and to become law shortly.

The new hands-free rules will take effect in late February 2020, but violations will be handled with warnings through March 31, 2020.

Under the new law, you can talk to your cell phone, but you cannot touch or even look at it while driving, except in true emergency. You can touch it once to activate hands free mode. You cannot look at material on your phone, except at navigation maps, but then only on a mounted phone without touching it. You can hold and touch your phone if you are fully off the public travel path.

The law will mean behavior changes for most of us, but I believe that most of us are ready to make the changes. It is time we all start driving more safely by renouncing cell phone contact.

Here are the exact new rules specified in Section 9 ofthe report:

  • No operator of a motor vehicle shallholda mobile electronic device.
  • No operator of a motor vehicle shallusea mobile electronic device unless the device is being used in hands-free mode.
  • No operator of a motor vehicle shallread or viewtext, images or video displayed on a mobile electronic device; provided, however, that an operator may view a map generated by a navigation system or application on a mobile electronic device that is mounted on or affixed to a vehicle’s windshield, dashboard or center console in a manner that does not impede the operation of the motor vehicle.
  • . . . an operator shall not be considered to be operating a motor vehicle if the vehicle is stationary and not located in a part of the public way intended for travel by a motor vehicle or bicycle.

Hands-free mode is defined in Section 1 ofthe reportas “operation of a mobile electronic device by which a user engages in a voice communication or receives audio without touching or holding the device; provided, however, that a mobile electronic device may require a single tap or swipe to activate, deactivate or initiate the hands-free mode feature.”

The new rules apply to all mobile electronic devices, including not only phones, but also laptops, personal digital assistants, pagers, etc.

The emergency exceptions are narrowly drawn and include only use to report that

  • the vehicle was disabled;
  • medical attention or assistance was required;
  • police intervention, fire department or other emergency services were necessary for the personal safety of the operator or a passenger or to otherwise ensure the safety of the public; or
  • a disabled vehicle or an accident was present on a roadway.

First violations draw a $100 fine; second, $250; third or subsequent, $500. Second and subsequent offenders will have to attend a distracted driving education program. First and second violations, whether by adults or by junior operators, will not affect insurance, but a third offense will be a “surchargeable incident” which will raise insurance rates for the driver. Special limitations and penalties apply to school bus drivers and transit operators.

There has been broad consensus in the legislature for some time about these new rules. Our existing laws against distraction through mobile devices were unenforceable and all of us recognize the dangers of cell phone use.

What held up final approval of the bill for several months were concerns that the new rules would be used in a discriminatory way against people of color. To address these concerns, the bill strengthens data collection requirements. Records of motor vehicle citations will be collected by the secretary of public safety and security and analyzed by a qualified institution (selected by the secretary). The results of the analysis will be published and if a policy agency appears to be engaging in racial profiling, the agency will need to collect additional data and to have its officers undergo bias training.

Additionally, the secretary will release aggregate numbers in machine readable format. I understand the term “aggregate numbers” to include detailed cross-tabulations that can be the basis of independent analysis as to each law enforcement agency.

The disclosure and analysis of bias-related data will evolve over time in response to public comment and to support that evolution, the secretary is required to conduct public hearings annually. The secretary is also required to make initial improvement suggestions by April 1, 2020.

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