Ban hand-held cell phone use while driving?

Please see also this successor post in which I do come down in favor of the ban.

Next week, the Senate will vote on a proposal to ban use of hand-held cell phones while driving. As a frequent cyclist, I am a “vulnerable road user” and do live in fear of distracted drivers.   But I am not sure how I’ll vote yet.

Current law already prohibits texting while driving.  Fines start at $100 and go up to $500 for a third offense.  Current law allows the use of hand-held phones by adults “as long as 1 hand remains on the steering wheel at all times.”  Junior operators (those under 18) are already fully prohibited from using mobile devices while driving.

Under the proposed new law, the following acts would become violations punishable by fines if done by the operator while on an area of the roadway intended for travel (except in emergencies).

  • Using a mobile electronic device except in hands-free mode.
  • Touching or holding a mobile device  “except to activate, deactivate, or initiate a feature or function.”
  • Inputting information by hand into a GPS device.
  • Holding a mobile device in “immediate proximity of one’s head” — presumptively a violation, i.e., the police can pull you over if they see the phone near your head.

In a court of law, the words “initiate a feature or function” would probably be read to allow dialing a phone, but the proponents appear to believe that they are prohibiting dialing — this language may need some clarification.

There appear to be conflicting findings on the issue of whether hands-free phones are actually safer than hand-held phones. It does stand to reason that dialing a phone manually is as dangerous as texting, especially if it involves looking up a contact. One federally funded study, completed in 2013, found that the visual/manual tasks associated with hand-held phones were associated with increased risks, but that talking on a phone (hand-held or otherwise) does not, per se, elevate risks.

By contrast,  a AAA study released around the same time, found that conversation by phone, whether hands-free or hand-held, degrades driving performance. Also, a finding from the first study was that many hands-free phones require visual-manual tasks to initiate calls, so they can create many of the same risks created by a hand-held phone.

It may be that we should go further and just ban non-emergency calls.  It would certainly be conceptually cleaner, given the vagueness of what “hands-free” means.  I advocated a full ban in our last go-round on this issue in 2010. The National Transportation Safety Board came out for a full ban in 2011, but no other state has gone so far.

Given that a limited ban targeting hand-helds favors people with the means to acquire better phones, enforcement of it will certainly fall more heavily on communities of poverty and there is the perennial problem of differential enforcement against people of color.

And are we focusing on the right issue?  Isn’t it just as dangerous to eat a meatball sub in a suit while driving?  There are a lot of ways we let our guard down. Data from the federal Department of Transportation suggest that roughly 10% of fatal crashes involve distraction of some kind, but only 14% of that 10% (i.e., 1.4% of fatalities), involved the use of cell phones.  And how many crashes have been avoided because someone had successfully put an address into a navigation system and was following the voice commands rather than fumbling with a map?

Finally, the law will remain difficult to enforce.  People will learn to use the speaker phone and keep their hands below the window line.  Ironically, dialing covertly, they may run greater risks.  I’m not sure it is wise to add more unenforceable laws to the books — the police are already stretched too thin to stop people from running red lights.  I haven’t seen before and after studies suggesting that passing laws like this leads to reduced fatalities.

The most important thing may be to continue to remind drivers about the dangers of allowing themselves to be distracted in any way, including driving while fatigued.

Despite these reservations, I remain unsure how I’ll vote. Passing a law like this, flawed as it may be, may be part of the education process that we need and it does stand to reason that it is a good thing to reduce visual-manual interactions with devices while driving.

I’d really like to hear from folks on this one.

Please see this successor post in which I do come down in favor of the ban.

Let’s continue the conversation there. I’ve closed comments on this thread (after reading carefully through all of them, believe it or not), but we can keep the conversation going in the successor post.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

298 replies on “Ban hand-held cell phone use while driving?”

  1. I appreciate (a) the quandary and (b) the thoughtful approach you are taking to this. I likewise do not have a firm or fixed opinion on this matter.

    My husband is a frequent cyclist to his job in Cambridge, and I worry every day about what might happen to him. Just today I accepted a non-emergency call while driving in an unfamiliar area and made an absent-minded entry into a round-about. Fortunately nothing bad happened, but I was appalled that I did this and have resolved to be much more careful going forward.

    Perhaps the right answer is to gather more information before making a final decision. I’m not sure it helps to have another essentially non-enforceable law on the books, and I am a big believer in avoiding unforeseen or unintended consequences. If anyone could demonstrate that this law would save lives, then I fully support it. It not, then you should probably vote no.

  2. I think cell phone use should be banned. Too many drivers think they can multi task while driving. Not safe.

  3. Hi Will – as always, you do a great job of listing the pros and cons. I think for one as you describe it, it’s unenforceable and therefore a waste of time and money.

    Personally, I can’t imagine driving now without using google maps or similar service. Moreover, I would argue that there’s a material difference between texting — which takes a lot of attention — and talking.

    I see as much if not more distraction fiddling for music and in general on the now integrated settings / atmosphere management systems in cars (e.g. the infamous iDrive). With more new cars deftly integrating smartphone connectivity, I think this is wasted effort (will you ban all activities on bluetooth-connected phones?) and I’d rather we focus on something else.

  4. I support this law – it’s not that there is an object in your hand (the meatball sub), but the distraction factor. As a frequent passenger, all I ever see are people on their phones. Traffic caused by people texting and not being observant of red lights turning green, people swerving into your lane before fully checking on the highway because they’re talking and holding a phone, the list can go on forever.

  5. I believe that a total ban except in the case of emergency is best, there are too many sources of distraction that lead to accidents. Eliminating cell phone calls will prevent accidents without having to discriminating against any age group. I would not weaken the law because the evidence on how distracting a cell phone is in not definitive.

  6. I think having a law that is next to impossible to enforce is not smart. I believe that rather than making cell phone use while driving illegal, The state should consider changing the distracted driving law so that there are increased penalties for people who drive badly while on the phone. I have seen people drive Slowly, wander out of lane, stopping while having the right of way; all should be considered distracted driving. Secondly, traffic enforcement is not a priority with most police departments because the fines all go the courts. I would make an change so that a distracted driving fines, 20 or 30 percent goes to the town that enforces it and the rest to the court. Finally, I would require that Cell phones networks, block a device’s phone and text function of a user under the age of 16-18 or 21 if the device is moving faster than 15 MPH to prevent underage drivers from the temptation of driving and texting or Driving and talking.

    1. on Further reflection, I think that the phone Networks should block for all users the Text function if the device is moving faster than 15 MPH. Phones have a GPS and know if they are moving. When the phone stops moving the text messages can be downloaded to the device or uploaded. This would enforce the text while driving ban.

    2. “Finally, I would require that Cell phones networks, block a device’s phone and text function of a user under the age of 16-18 or 21 if the device is moving faster than 15 MPH to prevent underage drivers from the temptation of driving and texting or Driving and talking.”

      What about passengers? No way to tell if the phone is being used by a driver or a passenger.

  7. Will,
    Something must be done now. It is getting so that everyone has a phone in their hands, texting checking mail, etc. this is so very dangerous and getting worse every day. pLease!!

  8. PLEASE vote to ban cell phone use while driving! It is the most dangerous distraction to drivers!!!

  9. I saw a research study that convinced me that any kind of distraction leads to slower reaction times in a car and that the distraction contributed to accident-related slowness EVEN WHEN THE DRIVER WAS AWARE OF IT. I think one only needs to 1) want safer roads and 2) look at the research to conclude that cell phones should be illegal when driving.

  10. Driving for a prolonged period with one hand devoted to a different task that is absorbing your attention seems more mechanically risky than many other things mentioned. Also so many people use cellphones that the risk is more prevalent than eating meatball subs while driving. Dialing and inputting GPS instructions is distracting, but for a much shorter period of time. I support a ban of having a device held to your ear with one hand while driving.

  11. Will,
    Please vote against this overly vague, hard (impossible?) to enforce fairly and a waste of the police’s time and efforts. The threat does not warrant the restriction on civil liberties in my own car.

    Now if the insurance industry will give me a deep, deep discount on not using my phone in the car, then I might be all for my personal restriction of my phone use but that would be my choice.

    I hope this helps you decide for personal liberty.

    Thank you.

  12. Any step to reduce distracted driving should be taken. Disproportionate burden on lower income demographic is a red herring. It’s just not safe to be using a cellphone while one drives.

  13. I am not familiar with the studies that have been done. I can only comment on what I have seen as a driver. In general my impression has been that people with hand held cell phones are very distracted when driving. Not only do they have only one hand on the wheel but They are also partially focused on holding the phone to a specific location. I also think having a voice going directly into the ear elevates the distraction even greater. Drivers with hand held phones seem
    to be oblivious to red lights, cross walks and
    other drivers.

    I think if your going to be on the road your car needs to be safe and you need to be operating it safely as well. That benefits everybody who is driving, walking or biking.

  14. Please vote for this ban. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start. When I drive, I seem to be one of the few not using a cell phone.

    Judy Otto

  15. Hi Will,
    I use the cell phone in the car, and I know it degrades my driving performance. I would encourage you to support a law that prohibits the use of cell phones in a moving car.

  16. I think it’s a sound choice to vote in favor of this law. As the rules stand now with one hand on the steering wheel, that’s one hand to text, one hand to change the radio, one hand to modify your gps. With more and more distractions, some even required for the ride share industry, it keeps your hands on the wheel and focus on the task at hand. Sometimes the flaws in the bill is just the culture shifting before us.

  17. I feel it is too intrusive. This would mean police are in a moving car trying to look into another moving car. There may end up being more accidents between those two cars. I have enough problems changing the car radio stations. Would that be banned? Would telling small small children to be quiet in the back seat be a problem? I think Public safety announcements as are on TV now would be very effective. As you said police are already stretched. We would all need a personal policeman . Nobody is perfect. These are teachable moments. We will not be able to walk without without some kind of fine pretty soon.

    I would not favor a new law. Looks unenforceable.

  18. Don’t think eating a meatball sub is a reasonable comparison to a phone conversation and I suppose we could say the degree of distraction is consistent with the nature or the emotional content of of the call. I can understand that you are conflicted and I agree that I don’t like to add to reasons drivers can be pulled over by police. But I cringe when I see drivers using their cellphones. Just seems very dangerous so I support this law, and as you suggest, it can be part of the education process that we need to deal with this and future tech devices.

  19. Hey Will, I appreciate your discussion of this issue. And I get the concerns. But I think a message needs to be sent about distracted driving in general. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to ban most things that drivers opt to engage in – and phones, as ubiquitous as they are now – are not going away. But laws against handheld devices are the best we can do for the moment, and will drive technology toward safer options. I agree with your last statement – it’s really the best we can do.

  20. Ban them! I don’t know why this hasn’t been done earlier. I am a very active and defensive pedestrian. Seen it many times when a car blows a red light or some other infraction and the driver is talking on a cell phone and does not seem aware of what they just did. Oblivious.

    I noticed the MBTA has posted signs near the outdoor Green Line tracks in Brookline Village telling riders to look up from their cell phones when crossing the tracks! That tells you how distracted people are when on their phones.

  21. I am a transplant from California. I find MA drivers appalling, in general. I believe a hands-free ban would be appropriate, and it has worked well in CA.

    There are many times I have been in dangerous driving situations, and lo and behold, the driver is holding a phone. I am all for _increasing_ safety. There is simply no reason that a driver cannot pull off the road into a parking lot or similar to initiate or answer a call.

    If you have not watched the Warner Herzog documentary “From One Second to the Next” on how many lives can be shattered by texting while driving, you should. This is an easy call. Vote to ban.

    Again, please vote to ban. Thank you.

  22. Ban use of cell phones. In all of the issues raised there are dangers of inattention. One second can be disastrous. How about the one action we can all take? Pull over for a minute, or wait until you park, or are off the highway to dial, talk, text. It’s a habit. It takes time to break from a habit. We sometimes need to be saved from our self-destructive selves which might hurt others, too. Here’s a link to a short video. Please watch it. What a difference a second makes.

  23. I agree with the proposal . It’s more dangerous than purposeful speeding . I.e. The driver is focused and reading the road ahead rather than dawdling and not paying attention to his or her surroundings.

  24. If we are not 100% sure we are focusing on the right issue, and there is convincing evidence that we aren’t (that cell phone use is a small slice of the distracted driving pie), then it seems premature to go enshrining this tiny remedy into law, particularly with the other arguments against it, like the problem of enforceability. I stand against this bill.

  25. I do not support a ban on all cell phone use while driving. I do agree texting should not be allowed.

  26. The only part that seems enforceable is prohibiting holding mobile device near your head. Adding hands free phone systems to most cars is not practical. I would favor an encouragement to be stopped to dial phone or set up GPS. Can’t prohibit adjusting most dashboard controls.

  27. Whether I think the call is important or not, I never answer, nor do I look to see from whom the call is from until I either reach my destination or I pull over to the side of the road.
    Whether it’s handheld or hands free,there’s no two ways about it,it is a distraction and a dangerous one @ that.
    Just cut to the chase when wording the law, ‘no cell phone use while driving, no exceptions’. I think that covers everything don’t you

  28. Prohibit cell phone use by drivers in a moving car. Work to implement technology that would cut off texting and calling while the car is moving. It’s so dangerous.

  29. I have certain mized issues – first I use a head set beacuse I find it difficult to hold the phone next to my head. However I do use my built in GPS on a regular basis so I am not sure how that plays a roll and yes – sometimes I get pop up messages – Techology is a tricky thing but I would like to see the law

  30. Please vote yes. A friend of mine lost her mom last week while they were talking on the phone. I see SO many drivers being dangerous.
    Any steps we can take to make the roads safer should be pursued. Thanks

  31. I agree that a full ban makes the most sense, but any limitation is better than none at all.

  32. Given that texting is already illegal and is widely flaunted (and much more dangerous in my opinion than talking on a phone), I feel that we’d be better served to enforce the laws we have. I also would want to see data from states that have passed such a law in order to assess the efficacy. If it does nothing to reduce crashes or fatalities, it’s akin to taking your shoes off at the airport: just an other inconvenience that gives an illusion of increasing safety.

  33. I worry about distractions to drivers. Speaking on the phone and texting are serious distractions that take one’s mind and attention away from driving.
    While it may be difficult to enforce, I think that the message such a law sends is helpful. I doubt that the seatbelt law is easy to enforce but the law itself has many more people using seat belts for safety, I am sure.

  34. Holding something in one’s hand isn’t a serious distraction; holding a conversation with someone is a serious distraction. The answer is to ban all cellphone use, not (just) handhelds. This bill sounds like it is intended to look good to constituents rather than solving a problem.

  35. use of any phone or taxing device while driving is dangerous to the driver along with the passengers in the car and other cars on the road. I have seen accidents and myself escaped from a few close calls due to some driver’s use of phone while driving or entering the road from standing positions. Use of phone degrades the driver’s concentration and reflexes. It should be banned.

  36. If I were voting, I would vote yes. Holding a cell phone and talking while driving clearly is distracting and dangerous. The recent sight of a driver whipping around a corner with one hand on the wheel and the other holding a cell phone to his ear was chilling, an accident waiting to happen. Of course, we have to be prepared to enforce it. I suspect the police are not enthusiastic.

  37. Please vote yes to ban hand held devices. Maybe if people focus just on driving, they would drive better. People are too distracted in their cars !

  38. Thanks for asking.

    Although I have used hands-free and handheld phone devices while driving, I am convinced by both the research and my own experience, that any use of communication devices is detrimental to driving safety and should be prohibited.

    First off, it’s not just whether I get into an accident. Too many accidents affect other drivers and pedestrians. Why should we continue to endanger the innocent?

    Although I am a very experienced, defensive and thoughtful driver, I have had so many experiences where I was talking on the phone while driving (hands-free) and passed many intersections and exits that I simply could not remember. I was clearly not focused enough on the road.

    Talking on a phone involves a different level of engagement than listening to the radio or talking to a passenger. In the latter cases, it’s simple to ignore them and attend to the road, whereas we somehow feel an obligation to the person on the other end of the line, as they cannot see what we are confronting.

    I am also struck by commuters who apply makeup and read the paper while driving on the highway in the morning. Really!?! Someone should be pulling these people over too.

    I’m not sure what sanctions should be applied to these infractions (certainly not jail). Maybe required re-training. But I do feel strongly that we should set a standard for the state and the country that any distraction is not good for anyone’s safety.

    With regard to disproportionate enforcement in poorer communities and communities of color, we need to completely revise our notion of policing.


    1. And one more thing. What’s so important that we have to talk all the time while we are driving? Is our collective safety of so little importance compared to maximizing the efficiency of our precious time while driving? I hope not!

  39. I would like to see all cell phone use by vehicle drivers banned. I don’t know of any study that has shown that using cell phones while driving lessens the risk of an accident.

  40. The problem is that texting while driving is incredibly dangerous and the law against it isn’t enforceable because the driver can claim they were just talking on the phone which is legal. So you need a complete ban on any handheld phone use just for safety.

    I thing using a phone hands free doesn’t create the same level of danger as texting since you can keep your eyes on the road, so I see no reason to ban it.


    Dave Teller

  41. I’m not sure I like the way the law is written (or at least, if it is as you paraphrased it).

    “on an area of the roadway intended for travel” says to me that even if you are stopped, you’re in violation. A stopped car is relatively safe, and what we’ll get otherwise is all sorts of improvised pulling-off-the-road (like into bike lanes) to avoid this technicality. I’m willing to let people do this while stopped, especially if that makes it less onerous. For example, pulling off the road on Mass Ave is a real pain, but there’s plenty of chances to be stopped in traffic.

    I have, on the other hand, seen people futzing with their GPS while rolling and I’m totally okay with that being against the law. In my experience, talking on a phone is nowhere near the distraction of pushing any button whatsoever on the phone. Dialing is a disaster waiting to happen.

    And just a detail, but is this written for “vehicles” or “motor vehicles”? Bicycles running into things usually does little damage to property and other people, so it’s easy to justify limiting this restriction to motor vehicles because of their greater speed and larger mass.

    A minor other concern — how does this compare with laws in other states, especially nearby states (e.g., NY)? If their law is close enough to what we want, there’s a certain virtue to uniformity, and we can check their experience to see if we like the effects that they observed.

  42. Sir, there is a law on the books that might cover this. G.L. c.90,s13, Impeded Operation. under the section there is a Catch-all Coverage that states “on or in the vehicle or on or about his person, anything which MAY interfere with or impede the proper operation of the vehicle or any equipment by which the vehicle is operated or controlled.” I am sure an officer would need to be able to articulate exactly how the operation was impeded but that should not be a problem during ticket appeal. I suggest speaking with Sgt. Lawrence Kiley of the Mass State Police. He is a walking encyclopedia of chapter 90 law.

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