April Is Distracted Driving Awareness Month

Massachusetts has banned drivers from texting, emailing and holding a phone for more than three years now. But look out your window. Many drivers are still picking up, typing or scrolling. Some are getting more advanced with video chat.

April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month, an opportunity to refocus, set down your phone and pay attention to traffic conditions. For all the warnings, drivers are still giving into distractions at a high rate, with serious consequences. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that 3,142 people were killed, and as many as 324,652 more people were injured in distracted driving crashes in 2020 alone.

This month is about awareness, but also enforcement. In recent years, Massachusetts police departments have received federal funding to conduct extra safety patrols. Many drivers have learned awareness the hard way during Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

Massachusetts Drivers Are Engaging in Distracted Driving and Getting Caught During Enforcement Periods

In 2021, Massachusetts police issued 14,000 more citations than in 2020

How many Massachusetts drivers are engaging in distracted driving? Only the drivers know.

What we know is Massachusetts had a hard-to-enforce texting while driving ban. Then the Massachusetts hands-free law took effect on Feb. 23, 2020.

During 2020, more than 29,600 people were cited for distracted driving, according to a 2022 Mass. Department of Transportation presentation. Police issued more than 44,300 distracted driving citations in 2021 – up more than 14,000 citations from 2020.

This escalated even more in 2022. State officials provided an update in September 2022 and said compared to 2021, Massachusetts had recorded an 85+ percent increase in distracted driving citations during the first two-thirds of 2022. State officials say April saw the most distracted driving citations (more than 12,000) during the first eight months of 2022, more than twice that in May, which came in second.

As a driver, you want to put your cell phone down for safety. The last thing you want is the regret of causing someone a serious injury.

Drivers Admit to Cell Phone Use and Acknowledge the Safety Risks

What becomes difficult to reconcile is many drivers acknowledge the safety risks of cell phone use/texting while driving. According to the AAA Traffic Culture Index Survey, 92 percent of drivers said they believe texting or emailing while driving is very or extremely dangerous.

At the same time, 26 percent of the drivers admitted to sending a text or email while driving in the month before the survey. Even more drivers – 39 percent – admitted to reading a text or email.

Distracted Driving Can Cost You More Than You Think

However, you should also think about your auto insurance policy.

If you violate the Massachusetts hands-free law, the penalties are a $100 fine for the first offense. There is a $250 fine for the second offense (and a mandatory distracted driving education course).

Fines and penalties are more serious for the third and subsequent offenses. There is a $500 fine, a mandatory distracted driving program and you will receive an insurance surcharge. A surcharge could raise your auto insurance premium, and this could impact your insurance for years.

How Many Apps Do You Have on Your Cell Phone?

The Massachusetts hands-free law took effect in late February 2020. With the hands-free law, Massachusetts drivers are no longer allowed to use hand-held cell phones or electronic devices. Drivers are not allowed to touch devices for texting, emailing, apps, video or Internet use.

Drivers were urged to get ready for the hands-free law early, by purchasing dashboard mounts and setting up hands-free technology. But the pandemic was a major interruption and restricted our driving, while bringing big change to our digital lives.

Many of us are now carrying around cell phones with more mobile apps for all sorts of tools and services, from takeout food to pharmacies and other stores. The apps have many notifications and a variety of chirps. We are also logging more hours on social media and email from our phones.

Then there are video games. After the pandemic, three-quarters of all players are now over 18 years old, with an average age of 33, according to a 2022 industry study. Most players – 70 percent – said they prefer playing on smart phones, which allow them to take all sorts of games – from Wordle to Super Mario Bros. to Solitaire on the go.

Video chat is another concern. In Massachusetts, drivers are not allowed to touch cell phones, but they can mount electronic devices and access a number of digital tools, including chat tools.

We have seen the dangers of video chat tools in Massachusetts. In October 2021, a Northampton cyclist was tragically hit and killed by a young driver who police allege had been chatting with a friend on the FaceTime app.

A Massachusetts lawmaker quickly acted after this, proposing an amendment to the state’s hands-free law that would also ban video broadcasting and streaming. The legislation – called “Charlie’s Law” – would prohibit video recording or broadcasting while driving, which would have included vlogging and streaming activities. The president of the Safe Roads Alliance voiced support for the measure, saying driving habits had worsened during the pandemic and that “the car is no place for Zoom meetings, FaceTime, or vlogging.”

There was at least one other fatal accident involving the FaceTime app that year. In April 2021, a 30-year-old man was driving down Highway 62 in Minnesota while talking to his wife on the FaceTime app, according to a news report. He told police his phone was mounted and he was not looking at the device when he struck another driver’s car. This was a traumatic crash, pushing the second vehicle on its side and killing the driver. Two other vehicles were also pulled into this accident.

Across the U.S., 24 states have passed hands-free driving laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). All six New England states have hands-free driving laws (Massachusetts was the last of the New England states).

But these laws have potential limits. As of December 2021, just four U.S. states had passed laws that specifically mention a ban on recording and broadcasting. These states included Georgia, Arizona, Tennessee and Utah.

Georgia’s law took effect in July 2018. According to the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, the law does not allow drivers to watch videos, unless for navigation. Drivers are not allowed to record video (except for continuously running dashcams). The dashcam exception was also part of the proposed “Charlie’s Law” in Massachusetts.

The Georgia hands-free law also touches on the use of music streaming apps. Drivers can only activate music streaming apps when parked.

Re-Commit to a Cell Phone Safety Plan

  • Plan your ride. Gone are the days when you can just get in your car and start driving. Every time you get in your car, make a decision about your cell phone. You can secure your phone in the back seat or trunk. Or you can mount your phone and connect to hands-free technology.
  • Call before you drive. Check in with your family members, children or friends before you drive. Explain that you will be driving and will be unavailable to talk or text. If you have a child, tend to their needs before you drive, whether they need to talk for a few minutes or you need to arrange their ride home from sports practice.
  • Never use video while driving. Never use video chat tools or watch video content while driving. These take your focus off the road – or at least put more visuals in your focus. If you want content, look for audio, such as audio books or music (but remember you are not allowed to touch your cell phone while listening).
  • Park before you text. If you feel you have to send a text from your phone, pull over and park in a safe location first. Never stop on the shoulder of the road. Find a parking lot.
  • No social scrolling. Social media has a strong pull. Whether you glance for a moment or get caught up for several minutes, you put yourself, your passengers and others in danger.
  • Check your digital well-being. Most phones have a digital well-being check tool. Check how many hours you have logged today and over the past week. It may be more than you realize and it may be causing you fatigue.

In addition, the more time you spend on your cell phone, the harder it can be to step away in the car.

Make a plan to cut down your cell phone time – even just for a few days. Look at your apps. Consider taking a few social media apps off your phone. Instead, use these apps on your tablet at home.

About Breakstone, White & Gluck

With over 100 years combined experience, Breakstone, White & Gluck specializes in personal injury law and represents those injured in car accidents in Boston and across Massachusetts. Our car accident attorneys are experts in Massachusetts insurance laws and we are committed to helping our clients make their best physical, emotional and financial recovery.

If you have been injured, learn your legal rights. For a free legal consultation, contact Breakstone, White & Gluck at 617-723-7676 or 800-379-1244 or use our contact form.