Often this space is devoted to criticism of things overlooked or ignored by Beacon Hill — a scarcity of funding for a healthy food program, the absence of a driving-while-stoned law or the lack of rules requiring carbon monoxide detectors in schools are just a few from the past couple of weeks.
Today we recognize something that went right, even if it was late.
As you read this, state police are on the highways looking for drivers texting, dialing, inputting an address and otherwise preoccupied with their cell phones. As the state’s long-awaited hands-free law goes into effect today, troopers are memorializing the occasion with a rush of enforcement.
They’re not writing tickets, yet. Drivers get a month of warnings before the first fines are issued — $100 for a first offense, $500 after that. The more recalcitrant will accumulate points against their licenses and, as a result, pay higher insurance rates.
It’s an important law but, to be sure, Massachusetts comes late to the party. Twenty other states, including New Hampshire, already ban the use of hand-held mobile devices by drivers. In most cases, as in Massachusetts, it is a primary offense, which is to say an officer’s just seeing it happen is enough to warrant a traffic stop and ticket.
Yet, as has been the experience of other states, and other laws in this one, the new rule just as easily could be ignored. A law is only a start. Police must enforce it. More critically, drivers must pay heed, even when no one else is looking. Otherwise, how much have we really done to make our roads safer?
Take Georgia, for example. Its legislature passed a hands-free law two years ago, and while traffic fatalities edged down slightly in the first year, drivers’ bad behavior didn’t change much. The Atlanta Journal Constitution recently reported on the experience of Georgia State Trooper Emily Beaulieu, who described seeing a dozen people breaking the law in just a half hour’s worth of watching traffic.
“I look for people looking down at their lap for an extended period of time, or someone having trouble maintaining their lane,” she told the newspaper, adding that she makes 30 to 40 traffic stops each month for violations of the distracted driving law.
The problem there is partly one of incentive. Fines for breaking the law range from $50 for a first offense to $100 or $150 for subsequent violations. Lawmakers are now considering raising the penalties substantially. Massachusetts’ hands-free law brings much harsher fines, especially after the first offense.
But, as this state’s crosswalk law shows ($200 for failure to yield to a pedestrian) large fines alone don’t ensure safe driver behavior. After all, how many times have you stood in a crosswalk and waited for traffic to clear?
A culture where it’s no longer acceptable to fiddle with one’s phone and drive — enforced by the insistence of passengers in the car and other motorists in traffic, if not police who may not see it happen — also helps. Ultimately the solution may have to come from technology and cell phones designed to turn off texting or other functions when they sense use in a vehicle.
The stakes are high. Distracted driving -- a category that covers an array of diversions from texting to putting on makeup to finding a radio station while operating a car -- kills 11 people in the country every day, according to AAA. That’s to say nothing of the accidents and injuries it causes. Someone driving the speed limit on an urban interstate will travel 80 to 100 feet in the second they look away from the road. In a few seconds, they’ve driven the length of a football field.
The hands-free law that takes effect in Massachusetts today, which Beacon Hill only got around to passing after multiple attempts and a growing chorus of complaints about its inaction, is a huge step toward making our roads safer.
But that only truly happens when all of us are committed to not looking at our phones when we are driving.
As Emily Stein, president of the Safe Roads Alliance, whose father was killed by a distracted driver in 2011, told Statehouse reporter Christian Wade: “People need to just put their phones down and drive.”