Editorial: It’s time to ban hand-held devices behind the wheel

New compromise legislation is moving ahead on Beacon Hill that would impose hefty fines on motorists caught using handheld devices while driving. It has been difficult to ban handhelds in Massachusetts, despite the proven dangers of distracted driving. That’s mainly because civil rights proponents are concerned about the law being unevenly enforced and fueling the detestable racial profiling that is already a problem.

There is no doubt that the carnage on our roads could be lowered if we put down our phones while driving. This law, if enacted, would seek to do that by adding an escalating series of penalties on drivers who refuse to obey.

The bill reads, in part, “A violation of this section shall be punishable by a fine of $100 for a first offense, by a fine of $250 for a second offense, and by a fine of $500 for a third or subsequent offense.”

A 2019 study published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that about 9 percent of the 34,247 fatal auto crashes in the US in 2017 involved distracted drivers (about 14 percent of that figure was determined to be by people occupied by their phones.)

Massachusetts would join “at least” 20 other states that have already banned hand-held devices behind the wheel, according to the State House News Service.

It’s important to note that this proposed law would not prohibit our ability to communicate or navigate during travel. But, it would need to be in “hands-free” mode, using a mounted device. Juggling your cell in one hand while steering with the other would be banned. If enacted, as expected this week, “the law would take effect 90 days later,” according to State House News Service. Drivers caught in the act, so to speak, would get a warning until April 1, 2020.

Another important element of the bill: The DMV will collect data on the age, race, and gender of those who get a citation and be required to publish an annual report on the findings. The bill’s authors did this in response to valid concerns about profiling by law enforcement, a proven experience across the US. The data will track specific police departments, and if any of them are found to have profiled based on race or gender, for example, they will be required to undergo “implicit bias training using best practices.” The data, incidentally, will be used for every traffic stop, not just those that result in a ticket.

Some who express worry about profiling and unnecessary police stops say that there needs to be better means of tracking data and analyzing it, but state Sen. Joe Boncorre was right when he told the State House News Service: “This is an improvement on the 2000 [data collection] law, and we really can’t allow perfect to be the enemy of the good.”

Emily Stein, president of the Safe Roads Alliance, a leading proponent of the proposed law, was emphatic about its likely consequences.

“This law will save lives, and it will help to educate drivers about the serious consequences of phone use while driving. We have lost too many lives [and seen] too many disabling, serious injuries that were caused by a distracted driver. This is a big step toward preventing more of these senseless, preventable crashes.”

Ultimately, the greater public good is served by this law. We all need to learn to keep the phones on the console, or — better yet— in our pockets while driving. It’s a learned behavior and if the incentive of avoiding costly fines or a police interaction can help move the needle, it’s time to give it a try.

– Bill Forry