Drivers weigh in on potential cellphone use ban



Published: 07-03-2017 9:28 AM

EASTHAMPTON — If it were up to Tim Sharrow, all cellphone use would be banned in cars.

He has seen distracted drivers rear-end people, distracted drivers slow to go when the light turns green, distracted drivers who don’t seem to realize the responsibility they have barreling down the highway in a 4-ton hunk of metal.

“If I’m driving, I don’t touch my phone,” said Sharrow, 33, as he was walking Sunday near Nashawannuck Pond in Easthampton. “I hate my phone as is anyway.”

In today’s world, Sharrow may be in the minority. Those interviewed in Easthampton Sunday said it is hard to ignore the ping of their phones — even when driving — in an ever-more-connected world.

But, regardless, the Massachusetts Legislature could be on the verge of a distracted-driving crackdown. Texting while driving is already illegal in the state, but under legislation that passed the state Senate last week, talking on the phone while driving may also soon be illegal, unless the device is in a hands-free mode.

Similar laws are on the books in Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont. One in Maine awaits the governor’s signature.

Sharrow knows the type of person the statutes target.

“My wife would be one of the first ones locked up,” he said.

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To be clear, the Legislature’s plan wouldn’t put anyone behind bars. Penalties include a $100 fine for someone’s first offense, a $250 fine for the second and a $500 fine for subsequent offenses. Third-time offenders would also have to take a class, and surcharges that affect insurance payments would also take hold.

Sharrow made this point: Even if we don’t personally text or talk while driving, we probably know someone who does. Five drivers interviewed in Easthampton Sunday described a culture where texting or talking while driving is pervasive, even if it is frowned upon — or even illegal.

“I feel really unsafe with my friends who text and drive,” said Caroline Palmer, 23, of Northampton. “It’s a thing that a lot of people do.

“You do it, sometimes,” Palmer said to Emily Coffin, 22, of South Hadley, who was sitting nearby on a picnic blanket.

Coffin is conflicted. She knows using her phone behind the wheel is bad, but still she uses it.

The pinging does not stop, and an urge to peek often takes hold. It is only ever satisfied when we look down at the screen.

These days, there’s a common scene that plays out at traffic lights. The light turns green. But the person at the front of the line does not go. After three seconds, a driver — one, two, maybe three cars back — lays on their horn. The distracted driver skids off.

“I’ve been that person,” Coffin said. “And I’ve also honked at those people.”

Coffin said reducing distracting driving is a good goal, but she is wary of police having another reason to pull people over. She thinks these new laws could veer into slippery slope territory.

“If I look down at all, can the cop give me a ticket?” Coffin said. “It just feels problematic to have, like, cops breathing down your neck about that.”

Still, everywhere there are horror stories. In 2015, 21 percent of 291 fatal crashes in Massachusetts involved a distracted driver, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.

Suzanne Sickler, 73, of Easthampton, has a horror story of her own. Last year, she said, she was driving her Chrysler minivan down an area road with six dogs in her car — she walks dogs — when “my watch dinged off,” she said of her smart watch.

“Somebody had texted me a message,” Sickler said. “I should not have looked at it.”

She said she went off the road and hit a fire hydrant that thankfully didn’t burst open. She learned her lesson the hard way.

“I learned: Do not text,” Sickler said.

Cassie Cummings, 20, of Easthampton, was preparing to go fishing in Nashawannuck Pond Sunday afternoon.

Cummings said one day, maybe two weeks ago, she was driving in Northampton when a woman pulled out in front of her, apparently not seeing Cummings because she was distracted.

“I was like, ‘what are you doing?!’” Cummings said. “And I noticed she was on her phone.”

Cummings isn’t totally innocent.

“It’s really hard when you’re on the go and you really need to say something to someone, but you know you shouldn’t.”

Jack Suntrup can be reached at