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Not Everyone is Familiar with New Hands Free While Driving Law

On Sunday, February 23, a new Hands-Free-While-Driving law went into effect in Massachusetts. It comes on the heels of a national surge in accidents caused by distracted driving– often a result of too many drivers on their phones, or even sending texts, rather than focusing on the road.  According to Mass.gov, the national number of crashes due to distracted driving rose 170% from 2014-2016. According to the CDC, “each day in the United States, approximately 9 people are killed and more than 1,000 injured in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver.” The new Hands-Free law aims to lower those numbers.

A 2017 survey of Lesley University commuter students found that 40.7% drove themselves to campus. Linda Elliott, Director of Commuter Students provided this data, and says she hopes to complete a similar survey this fall for more current information. But whether you’re driving to campus, or driving anywhere else in Massachusetts, here’s what you need to know about the new law:

Drivers who are 18 and over
• Can only use [devices] in hands-free mode and are only permitted to touch devices to activate hands-free mode.
• Not permitted to hold or support any electronic device/phone.
• Cannot touch phone except to activate the hands-free mode and can only enable when the device is installed or properly mounted to the windshield, dashboard, or center console in a manner that does not impede the operation of the motor vehicle.
• Not allowed to touch device for texting, emailing, apps, video, or internet use.
• Activation of GPS navigation is permitted when the device is installed or properly mounted.
• Handheld use is allowed only if the vehicle is both stationary and not located in a public travel lane or a bicycle lane, but is not allowed at red lights or stop signs.
• Voice to text and communication to electronic devices is legal only when device is properly mounted; use of headphone (one ear) is permitted.

The law also states that drivers who are under 18 are not allowed to use their phones at all while driving. Violation of the new law can result in fines: for a first offense, it’s $100; and a second offense is $250. Subsequent violations could lead to insurance surcharges, according to the Mass.gov website.

I wondered if Lesley students who drive were aware of the new Hands-Free law, and I asked a few of them about their reactions to it. Morgaine O’Connor, a junior photography major, Jacqueline Souza, a senior psychology major, and Madeline Flagg, a currently undeclared freshman, had varying degrees of prior knowledge about the new law.

“I didn’t realize that Massachusetts was hands-free,” admits Morgaine. “And I didn’t really realize how aggressive [the law] was. I definitely hold my phone for GPS.” Agreements resounded in our small group. “I also didn’t know about the red light thing,” Morgaine adds, stating that she normally will grab her phone at a red light to change the music.  Madeline knew in advance about the hands-free law. “I drive literally every day, so I see the signs,” she explains. “I’m from New Hampshire so I’m used to not using my phone… it seems very strict here, I don’t even know what hands-free mode is on my phone. I wouldn’t know how to access that.”

This resonates with me, as someone who is not so tech savvy myself. It seems many of us will need to familiarize ourselves with our smartphones’ hands-free mode– a setting which may have felt superfluous in the past, but is now a necessity for everyone who drives and relies on a GPS app on their phone. Or likes to play music on their phone, or respond to calls or texts, while driving.

“What about watches?” asks Madeline. “I can voice-to-text on my watch… but if I’m like this,” she demonstrates raising her hand level with her mouth. “Is that also illegal now?”  None of us could answer with absolute certainty. On the one hand, it seems that having the watch on your wrist counts as having it “properly mounted,” and the act of speaking instead of tapping it counts as hands-free. However, the law states that devices must be properly mounted “to the windshield, dashboard, or center console,” making no mention of one’s wrist. And does raising a hand from the steering wheel to speak into your watch still count as hands-free? It’s a question I’d rather not have to ask a state trooper through my rolled-down window on the side of the highway.

The three students all had concerns about keeping their phones “properly mounted… in a manner that does not impede the operation of the motor vehicle.” Morgaine and Jacqueline have both experienced trying to use a phone mount in a small car. “There’s nowhere to mount it because the vent is so small,” says Morgaine.  Jacqueline recalls her old phone mount. “It [had] sticky stuff that you put on the windshield, and on hot days it just falls off. So, when I’m driving, instead of just looking at the GPS while I’m holding it, I’m scrambling to reach it so that it’s not blocking the accelerator or the brake,” she recounts.  Jacqueline also points out that older cars don’t have Bluetooth capability, making hands-free cell phone use more difficult. Even with the volume on full blast, a cell-phone speaker may struggle to compete with the hum of the engine and the roar of other cars whooshing by on the highway.

It seems that many Massachusetts residents, including some Lesley commuters, are going to have to adjust to hands-free driving in cars, including those that were not crafted to accommodate smart phones.  Meanwhile, if you don’t have hundreds of dollars lying around to pay fines, here’s a friendly reminder to keep your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel—not on your smart phone– while you drive. For more information, go to https://www.mass.gov/service-details/hands-free-law

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