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Does Massachusetts “Hands Free Laws” Solve Distracted Driving?

Massachusetts motorists will have to contend with a new ban on driving and cellphone use this year.  Although texting and driving has been banned for all drivers regardless of age since 2010, only motorists under the age of 18 were barred from using a hand-held device to call, talk, or review email messages and perhaps watch a video.  The use of hand-held devices has been cited as a factor in causing numerous deaths and serious injuries. Governor Baker and safety advocates are confident the new law will be instrumental in reducing traffic accidents and fatalities. 

With the new law, all drivers are barred from using a hand-held device. Law enforcement will only begin issuing warnings on February 23, 2020 until April 1 when citations will be issued.  A first offense is a $100 fine that increases to $250 with a second, and to $500 for all subsequent violations. Note, however, that a fine for such an offence, while minor, will help if the perpetrator causes and accident.  

Hands-free phone use is allowed to a point.  You can mount your phone on your dashboard, window, or center console by are only permitted to swipe a finger or to push a button to answer a call or use a GPS function.  However, you can also use it in your hands if an emergency that threatens safety, life or property. Law enforcement and emergency personnel are exempt from the prohibition.

The law does require law enforcement agencies to maintain data on who is being stopped and cited due to racial profiling concerns, which was one reason lawmakers were reluctant to pass the ban.  Data on whether the ban is proving effective will also be kept. 

Will the Massachusetts Hands Free Ban Be Effective?

Distracted driving, which generally refers to use of a cellphone while driving, has been compared to drunk driving as a major factor in serious and fatal car accidents, and is often blamed for the increase in traffic fatalities nationwide.  Studies from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and others show that a driver spends an average of 5-seconds on their phone while driving. This time not focused on driving greatly increases your risk of being in a serious or fatal accident. 

But are hands-free laws really effective in reducing the incidence of traffic accidents?  Other states that have had hands-free laws for a few years have conducted their own studies and the results have not been as expected.  In Connecticut and New York, studies indicated that while overall cellphone use dropped dramatically by as much as 57% in Connecticut and 40% in New York when enforcement efforts were intensified, it had a negligible effect on the rate of auto accident insurance claims. 

Some experts feel that any kind of cellphone use is dangerous, regardless if hands-free or not. The human brain is not equipped to handle two distinct tasks at once.  Just like it is not possible to read a book and talk on the phone, it is not realistic to believe a person can talk on the phone and drive safely. Also, some drivers will put their phones in their laps to use so that law enforcement cannot see them.

Simply put, talking or any use of a phone while driving means that your full focus and attention is no longer on driving.  Driving is more than just looking at the road in front of you; it requires that you continually scan your environment for hazards such as bicyclists, pedestrians in crosswalks, for slowing or stopped traffic, and keeping your car in your lane of traffic.  Focusing on driving means being aware of your surroundings, the route you are taking, noticing all traffic signs and devices, the turns you have to take, and being on the defensive for reckless drivers. 

Curiously, talking to your passenger while driving does not pose the same danger as talking on your phone, hands-free or not.  You and your passenger are, hopefully, still focused on the road and you have the added benefit of a second person who can alert you to a stop light, slowing traffic, or a pedestrian crossing the street.  Researchers call this “situational awareness.” Your brain also does not have to work as hard as when you are talking into a device or listening to one. A Carnegie Mellon University study reported that listening on a phone decreases the parietal lobe activity that controls spatial tasks such as navigating, estimating distances, and other cognitive tasks associated with driving. 

If the studies already done hold true for Massachusetts, then lawmakers and safety advocates will have to explore other measures to reduce the risk that distracted driving poses. 

Liability and Distracted Driving

If the motorist who collided with you was on his cellphone, does that mean that liability is automatically imputed to that person?  If the driver was talking on a hands-free phone, then no traffic violation was committed. In a case where liability is disputed, your car lawyer can argue that despite no traffic law having been violated, talking on a phone is still an activity where you are no longer fully focused on driving and thus the defendant was not aware that the traffic light had turned red 5-seconds earlier.  This can be relevant if there are opposing versions of the facts. 

Phone records can be subpoenaed in such cases.  If the records show that the other driver had texted in the moments just before the accident, this is evidence of negligence that could have caused the accident.  If the driver had said that he had not been texting when questioned by the officer at the scene, but the phone records show otherwise, then you have evidence that he was untruthful and that his version of the accident lacks credibility. 

However, you do need other evidence of the driver’s negligence in proving your case, since talking or using a cellphone in any manner is not enough by itself to prove negligence.  The driver’s negligent conduct must have been from making an unsafe turn, failing to stop for a red light or stop sign, speeding, turning in front of a bicyclist in a bike lane, or some other wrongful conduct that other evidence can prove. 

Damages in Distracted Driving Cases 

The damages in a distracted driving case are the same as any other motor vehicle injury accident, except for fatal ones. Damages that your car accident lawyer needs to prove in a typical case are:

Damages in most car accidents often include:

  • Past and future medical expenses
  • Past and future income loss
  • Emotional distress
  • Diminished quality of life
  • Decreased income capacity
  • Permanent disfigurement and disability
  • Pain and suffering
  • Spousal claim for loss of consortium

Retain a Car Accident Lawyer from Burns & Jain

A distracted driver can be a menace on the road and cause serious injuries. Trust your auto accident claim to a car accident lawyer who has obtained millions of dollars in settlements for his injured clients over the years.  Call Burns and Jain today at (617) 221-7971 for a free consultation about your injury claim.