Time to put the phone down: Driving law starts Sunday

  • Most smartphones can be operated by voice commands while mounted. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS



  • A sign on Interstate 91 north between Northampton and Greenfield reminds drivers about the hands-free driving law. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Stephanie Whitaker, of Hardwick, talks about the hands-free cell phone law going into effect Sunday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Diane Opalenik, of South Hadley, talks about the hands-free cell phone law going into effect Sunday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • David Heyes, of Palmer, talks about the hands-free cell phone law going into effect Sunday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Laila Basora,18, of Springfield, talks about the hands-free cell phone law going into effect Sunday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 2/21/2020 11:57:55 PM

NORTHAMPTON — After being struck by a person texting while driving last April, suffering a concussion, whiplash and neck pain, Diane Opalenik of South Hadley understands only too well the need to crack down on motorists using their phones.

“Six out of seven days, I can tell someone is on their phone. I see the reflection. I see them going over the middle line,” Opalenik said Friday at Thorne’s Marketplace in Northampton.

A decade after Massachusetts adopted a law prohibiting drivers from reading and sending texts with their cellphones, the state is banning drivers from holding electronic devices while operating motor vehicles.

Beginning Sunday, local and state police will begin pulling over any vehicles whose drivers are holding their cellphones and using them to talk, navigate or perform other functions. All such devices must be mounted when in use, with drivers allowed one swipe to activate hands-free mode using technology such as Bluetooth.

Officers will issue warnings through the end of March, when fines of up to $500 for violations will commence.

The enforcement comes as legislation known as “An Act requiring the hands-free use of mobile telephones while driving” was signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker in November. The law is based on recommendations from the state’s Strategic Highway Safety Plan.

For local police, identifying violators shouldn’t be a significant challenge, as officers are already accustomed to making observations about erratic drivers and those who appear to be sending and reading texts, said Easthampton Police Chief Robert Alberti.

“It should be rather easy to enforce as it’s hands free, period,” Alberti said. “So if a driver is holding the phone to text or talk while driving, that is a violation under this chapter and section.”

Alberti issued a training bulletin to Easthampton officers about the written warnings to be issued during the phase-in period of educating and informing drivers.

Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone said that because enforcement is entirely visual, such as noticing vehicles not staying in a travel lane or drivers observed using a cellphone, officers are prepared.

“There’s obvious things to look for in the course of patrol,” Livingstone said.

The penalty for violating the hands-free law starts with a $100 fine for a first offense and rises to a $250 fine for a second offense and a $500 fine for a third or subsequent offense. A third or subsequent offense will count as an insurance surchargeable incident. Operators who commit a second or subsequent offense are also required to complete an educational program focused on distracted driving prevention.

People interviewed largely seemed to support the new law and observed that it won’t necessarily mean having to change their own habits.

“My car has a hands-free option,” said Stephanie Whitaker of Hardwick. “If I need to make a phone call, I’ll do it in my car.”

Laila Basora, 18, of Springfield has been driving for about a year, and always keeps her cellphone in her purse when on the road.

“My phone sends a message that I’m driving,” Basora said.

Moriah Morris of Westfield does likewise. “I already don’t talk on the phone when I drive,” Morris said.

“Other than the GPS, I have no problem with this law,” said Darlene Ninos. “The distractions are too great. It seems to be a reasonable thing to pass.”

And Allison Russo of Northampton said the Siri device that reads text aloud to her while driving might have a bigger impact on her driving.

“I have a touchscreen function on the dashboard and it’s more distracting than picking up the phone,” Russo said.

State police intend to deploy “dozens of additional patrols” to Massachusetts roads beginning Sunday, said State Police Col. Christopher Mason. These patrols, which will augment normally scheduled patrols, will include some with two troopers in a vehicle, allowing one to serve as a spotter.

“Our goal is for you to get home safely to the ones that you care about and the ones that care about you,” Mason said.

Baker, upon signing the law last fall, expressed appreciation for getting the bill after years of discussion.

“Our administration is committed to keeping the commonwealth’s network of roads safe, and this legislation will substantially reduce distracted driving and hold operators accountable when they are looking at an electronic device instead of looking at the road ahead,” Baker said.

One issue that held up the law was how to make sure that it would not allow police to target certain people. The law has provisions for collecting data to show whether this is happening.

Alberti’s memo notes that since 2001, Easthampton has collected demographic data and that officers are “expected to use their best judgment and life experience, based on their initial observation, to assist in identifying the purported race of the operator at the time the citation is completed or immediately after making the stop” and are not to ask a motor vehicle operator about race.

Officers are already accustomed to documenting a driver’s race when issuing a ticket or a warning or taking someone into custody during a traffic stop.

Livingstone said it’s possible some of this could pose difficulties.

“We think data collection and how it’s going to be used could be a problem down the road,” Livingstone said.

David Heyes of Palmer, who identifies as a person of color, said he worries about giving this new tool to officers.

“I think that it has dangers, as a person of color — an excuse to pull over,” said Heyes, 42.

The legislation establishes a new implicit bias training program for any jurisdiction deemed by an analysis of data to have engaged in racial or gender profiling. This is supposed to allay concerns about officers pulling over drivers for no valid reason.

The Registry of Motor Vehicles will house the data and the Secretary of Public Safety’s office will release the information to the public annually. The new law also sets forth a process should there be a suspicion that officers are engaging in racial profiling.

While it will take time to see how the new law plays out, Livingstone said he anticipates that eventually there will be state grants from the Executive Office of Public Safety to provide for specific enforcement of the hands-free law.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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