As attorneys, we have represented hundreds of victims of motor vehicle crashes over the past three decades. In recent years, we have seen texting while driving and cell phone use by drivers multiply at an alarming rate, causing a stunning number of injuries and deaths. These injuries are preventable, but each year, drivers continue to reach for their phones and the toll rises.
According to the US Department of Transportation, cell phones are now involved in 1.6 million auto crashes each year, injuring 500,000 people and causing 6,000 deaths. While many states have already passed legislation to reduce distracted driving accidents, some are now considering additional measures, including Massachusetts.
Massachusetts lawmakers passed the Safe Driving Law in 2010, which banned texting while driving. There was no further action until January 2016, when the Massachusetts state Senate passed a bill banning handheld cell phone use. The ban would have allowed drivers to use hands free technology to dial and talk. According to the State House News Service, the Massachusetts House of Representatives gave initial approval to a similar bill but the legislation stalled.
With Governor’s Comments, Handheld Cell Phone Debate Returns to the News
There was no update for several months. Then Governor Charlie Baker spoke in February, indicating he may not support a handheld ban.
“I don’t want to get out of the business of making it possible for people to talk to other people when they’re driving. Because I think the texting thing is a big problem. I’m not sure I believe that the talking thing is,” Baker said during his “Ask the Governor” segment on WGBH Thursday. His comments were published by the State House News Service.
When the show’s co-host noted that drivers could use hands-free Bluetooth devices, Baker said:
“So now we’re just going to let people who can afford to put a Bluetooth in their new car to have the ability to talk when they’re in a car?” Baker responded. “But we’re not going to let anybody else? Hmm. Let me think about that one a little.”
Following the interview, The Boston Herald called on state lawmakers to resume their work to ban handheld cell phones: “Drivers in Massachusetts have proven that when it comes to using their phones behind the wheel they’re incapable of regulating themselves.”
When texting while driving was banned in 2010, texting was the major concern for distracted driving, the Herald wrote. Today, more people have smartphones which offer quick access to social media and other apps.
How Widespread is Texting While Driving in Massachusetts?
Critics say enforcement for Massachusetts’ texting while driving ban is challenging when drivers can hold their phones to talk, but not for other purposes. Police have worked through some of these issues. According to a Boston Globe analysis, Massachusetts police officers wrote 6,131 tickets in 2015, compared to 1,153 in 2011, the first year of the ban. Overall, between late 2010 and mid-April of 2016 when the analysis was published, 18,383 tickets were issued for texting while driving in Massachusetts.
Drivers under 40 years old received the most tickets and many drivers got caught during Distracted Driving Awareness Month, when many local police departments receive safety grants for enforcement.
Where Proposed Legislation Now Stands in Massachusetts
Massachusetts is one of 46 states which have texting while driving laws. Just 14 states also ban handheld cell phone use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. New Hampshire, Vermont and Connecticut are among the early adopters.
Expect to hear more debate about a handheld cell phone ban in Massachusetts at some point in the future. While Governor Baker has voiced reservations, when the 2017-2018 legislative session began in January, the Massachusetts House of Representatives referred legislation for hands-free cell phone devices to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation.
Where to Find Distracted Driving Safety Campaigns and Information
Safety campaigns are critical to preventing distracted driving accidents. There are many out there, offering programs for schools and information online. One effort is from the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys (MATA), which brings its “End Distracted Driving” program to high schools. We support this campaign. Two of our partners, Marc L. Breakstone and Ronald E. Gluck, serve on the MATA Board of Governors. Partner David W. White is a long-time member.
Another effort comes from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which offers this pledge which family members can sign to promise each other they will not use a cell phone while driving.
Distracted Driving Prevention and Safety Campaigns:
Distraction.gov: Official U.S. website for distracted driving.
It Can Wait!: AT&T’s documentary to stop distracted driving.
Among drivers, teenagers have long been known as the most likely to be involved in car accidents. But a new study released by AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety is now quantifying how much that risk increases when teen drivers travel with other teens.
The study relies on federal fatality statistics and shows the risk for a fatal motor vehicle accident increases by almost half when a 16- or 17-year-old driver has one teen passenger in the car. The risk for a motor vehicular fatality doubles with two passengers and quadruples with three or more.
During the past decade, many states have implemented graduated licensing laws which have increased training requirements for new drivers, while also placing restrictions on passengers and hours of operation.
The Massachusetts’ junior operator license law prevents drivers from carrying passengers under the age of 18 during the first six months of having a license. There is an exception for siblings.
The law further bans teen drivers under 18 from operating between 12:30 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.
In 2010, the state of Massachusetts strengthened junior operator restrictions when it banned the practice of texting while driving for all drivers. While most drivers face a fine for first-time offenses, teens face heavier penalties of fines, license suspensions and are required to attend retraining classes.
Drivers age 18 to 20 report the most phone use during motor vehicle accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The age group is three times more likely to report they are reading or sending a text message or e-mail during a car accident than drivers over age 25. Reports of texting while driving drops significantly as age increases, the NHTSA figures show.
We urge parents to strictly enforce junior operator laws in their homes. In addition to helping teenage drivers get experience without distraction, preventing use of a family car in violation of the junior operating laws is one way to avoid claims for negligent entrustment of an automobile.
- Passengers Increase Chance of Teen Driver Fatalities, AAA Study Finds, Washington Post
- Massachusetts Junior Operator Law
To parents, there is nothing more important than their children’s safety. In the car, safety starts with child passenger safety seats.
This week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is observing Child Passenger Safety Week. This weekend is National Seat Check Saturday, an opportunity for parents to have their child’s safety seat inspected free of charge.
Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Child passenger safety seats have been shown to reduce these deaths. For infants, child safety seats result in a 71 percent reduction in motor vehicle accident deaths.
All 50 states have child passenger protection laws. Violations are a primary offense in Massachusetts and 47 other states, meaning police can stop drivers solely for non-compliance. In Colorado and Nevada, child passenger safety violations are a secondary offense.
In Massachusetts, children must travel in a federally approved child passenger safety seat restraint until they are 8 years old or over 4’9″ tall.
Parents often use child safety seats incorrectly. In one study observing nearly 3,500 child safety seats, 72 percent were misused, according to the CDC. This increases the chance for motor vehicle accident injuries and deaths.
Massachusetts parents can ensure their child safety seat is properly fastened on Saturday, when police departments and not-for-profit organizations will provide free checks.
If you are a parent of a young child, click here to find an inspection station near you.
Click here for information on the Enhanced Child Passenger Safety Law in Massachusetts.
Each September, thousands of college students in Boston, Cambridge and across Massachusetts settle into campus life. And many students enjoy the extra freedom of bringing a car from home to school.
But students often make one costly mistake in the transition to college life. Students who have Massachusetts car insurance policies are required to inform their insurance companies about where the car is primarily kept. Otherwise, if there is a car accident, the insurance company might disclaim coverage, leaving the accident underinsured or uninsured completely. Students who fail to report their change of address and get into a car accident can be denied the Optional Insurance coverages on their policy.
Even if a student relocates a short distance, such as from Dedham to a dorm in Boston, he or she must inform the car insurance company where the vehicle will now be kept. The reason? Car insurance companies rate the coverage — and therefore the cost — on where the car is principally kept. If the car moves from a low-rated area (with fewer accidents) to a higher-rated area, the cost goes up. And if you are not paying the premium for the place where the car is principally kept, the insurance company has the legal right to disclaim coverage. And that can be harsh.
Optional Insurance Coverages Potentially At Risk Include:
Bodily Injury: This protects you from claims against your personal property if you cause a serious car accident.
Uninsured Auto: This coverage protects you and the people in your car if the person who causes the motor vehicle accident has no insurance.
Medical Payments: The first $8,000 in medical bills and lost wages are covered under the Personal Injury Protection (PIP), part of the Compulsory Coverage all Massachusetts drivers must purchase. Medical Payments provides policy holders extra protection for medical and health insurance.
Collision Comprehensive: If you are involved in a car accident, this coverage insures the damage to your vehicle.
Insurance issues can be very complicated, and you should not hesitate to call your agent if you have any questions.
Click here to read our article, “Understanding and Buying Massachusetts Car Accident Insurance.”
Another resource is, “Frequently Asked Questions on Auto Insurance,” by the Massachusetts Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation office.
As 35 million Americans plan to travel this Memorial Day weekend, we urge drivers in Massachusetts and throughout New England to think safety.
Travel will be down 100,000 travelers from 2010, which saw a 14 percent increase from the year before, according to the auto club AAA. Approximately 30.9 million people plan to drive 50 miles or more to their Memorial Day destination.
When this many drivers are on the road, it is especially important to watch out for those around you to avoid traffic accidents. That includes pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists as well as other cars. Here are some things to remember while traveling this holiday weekend:
- Wear seatbelts and make sure everyone in the car does the same. It is the law in Massachusetts and has proven effective in preventing traffic fatalities. In 2008 alone, seat belts saved more than 13,000 lives nationwide, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
- If you are traveling with children, make sure child passenger seats are in compliance with the law. Passenger seats can save lives in motor vehicle accidents. Click here to learn about Massachusetts’ child passenger seat law.
- When the roads are congested, watch out for aggressive drivers. Aggressive driving behavior may include someone who is following you too closely, speeding or gesturing at you. Avoid eye contact. Do not gesture back. Make it your goal to move away from the driver and not be involved in an aggressive driving car accident. If you can get the driver’s license plate, report the driver to authorities when it is safe to do so.
- Avoid driving fatigue. Do not drive if you have had inadequate sleep, worked an excessive number of hours or late at night without proper rest.
- Give motorcyclists more distance – three or four seconds – when following from behind to prevent a motorcycle accident. The goal is to give the motorcyclist enough time to make decisions and stop quickly if needed.
- Be aware that a motorcycle’s flashing turn signal can be deceptive. The signal may not be self-canceling and a motorcyclist may forget to turn it off. Wait to see whether the rider actually turns or a motorcycle accident may result.
- Allow bicyclists 3 feet clearance when passing on the road.
- Yield to cyclists at intersections and traffic signals before making your own driving decisions.
- Watch out for pedestrians and runners even in areas you may not expect them. In 2009, pedestrian deaths accounted for 12 percent of all traffic fatalities.
- Be vigilant about not driving while distracted and not texting while driving. It may be easy to let your guard down when you are relaxing among friends and family. But motor vehicle accidents happen fast and it is best to focus on the road.
- If you are drinking alcohol, do not drive, bicycle or walk on the road.