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Time to Put Down the Phone: MA Enacts Hands-Free Driving Law

Posted March 02, 2020

[Editor’s Note:  Distracted driving is a serious problem.  In this post, Law Clerk Michaela Hinckley-Gordon summarizes the requirements of Massachusetts’ new Hands-Free Law which was intended to help address it.  Jon Karon]

By Michaela Hinckley-Gordon

Every year 421,000 people are injured in motor vehicle accidents involving a distracted driver. In response to this, Massachusetts recently enacted a new hands-free driving law. The Hands-Free Law prohibits “operators of motor vehicles from using any electronic device, including mobile telephones, unless the device is used in hands-free mode.”

For drivers 18 years or older, the Hands-Free While Driving Law prohibits touching, holding, or supporting cell phones or electronic devices while operating a motor vehicle. If a driver wishes to use her cell phone while driving it must be in hands free mode and mounted to the windshield, dashboard, or center console. If mounted, the device cannot obstruct the vision of the operator or the operation of the motor vehicle. Additionally, the use of electronic devices is prohibited when the vehicle is stopped at a red light or stop sign. An operator is only allowed to touch the mobile device if he or she is doing so to enable hands-free mode or in an emergency situation. In an emergency situation, operators may use their cellphones to call 911 but are advised to pull over and stop before calling 911. The statute defines four circumstances which qualify as an emergency situation under the law:

(1) that the motor vehicle was disabled; (2) that medical attention or assistance was required; (3) that police intervention, fire department or other emergency service was necessary for the personal safety of the operator or a passenger; or (4) that a disabled vehicle or an accident was present in the public way.

Any other use of the device such as navigation or voice to text and communication, is legal only when the device is in hands free mode and properly mounted. The only handheld use permitted under the law is when the vehicle is both stationary and not located in a public travel lane or bicycle lane.

Violation of the Hands-Free While Driving law comes with a hefty price. The penalty for violating the hands-free law increases upon subsequent offenses. For the first offense the motor vehicle operator will be fined 100 dollars. On the second offense, the operator will be fined 250 dollars and will required to complete a mandatory distracted driving educational program. On the third and subsequent offenses, the operator will be fined 500 dollars, receive an insurance surcharge, and once again will be required to complete a mandatory distracted driving educational program.

For drivers under the age of 18, the new Hands-Free While Driving law upholds the pre-existing zero-tolerance policy for the use of any electronic or mobile devices while driving. This means it is illegal for teenagers to use any type of electronic device while driving, unless in an emergency situation.

While the Hands-Free Driving Law greatly restricts a driver’s ability to use her phone or electronic device while driving, according to Governor Charlie Baker, the law was created to decrease distracted driving and save lives. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, in 2017, nine percent of all fatal motor vehicle crashes involved distracted driving. Thus, in the grand scheme of things, the inconvenience of the hands-free driving law will hopefully be overshadowed by improved driver and passenger safety.

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