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. Dear Senator,

    I would fully support a law prohibiting the use of cellphones in a moving car by drivers. Just yesterday, I saw a driver watching a tv show while driving! The distractions are making drivers more careless and I would further support action that would automatically shut all functions of a phone but navigation and call 911 while a car is in motion. Attention should be on the road and the many other vehicles and pedestrians that share it.

  2. I agree that law will be hard to enforce and therefore may not serve it initial purpose. However, I don’t think total and complete ban is a solution either – people spend way to much time in their car and staying disconnected from the world may not work for a lot a people. I feel some sort of a “hands-free” only law is needed, but with the legal language different from one currently proposed.

  3. Sen. Brownsberger,

    I have some problems with the bill as written. If the object is to decrease distracted driving, then the exception allowing a driver “to activate, deactivate, or initiate a feature or function” allows for the most distracting time period of device interaction.

    I would like some clarification, as well. Would this law make use of a mobile device a primary offense? If so, I would agree that it would be very difficult to enforce. Limiting to hands-free doesn’t go far enough, but total ban of non-emergency use would be next to impossible to enforce.

    However, I also have some problems with some of the arguments you put forth. Saying “only 1.4% of fatalities” makes it sound like cell phone use is an insignificant risk, yet that still accounted for 455 deaths in 2013 that may otherwise have been avoided. It should also be noted that one limitation of that study is the variance in reporting/recording of distraction and cell use. What we can say is that at least 1.4% of distraction-associated fatalities involved cell phones. We should also avoid the temptation to focus solely on the most devastating outcome (death), when there are non-fatal but still serious outcomes.

    “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?”

    This does not seem to me a valid argument against the bill. Successfully putting an address into a GPS can be accomplished before the vehicle is under operation.

    Perhaps a better way to address distracted driving would be to have significant fines or other added penalties if use of a mobile device was a contributing factor to a traffic violation or accident. So, an added penalty on top of the penalties for the primary violation/accident.

    1. One more thought regarding hands-free vs. total ban as it relates to socioeconomic disparities. A hands-free only law basically allows those who can afford hands-free devices to engage in distracted behavior while prohibiting the same behavior in those who cannot afford hands-free devices.

    2. Good points. Just to respond on one issue: Reported (agreed, some is unreported) cell phone use accounts for a similarly low proportion of injury and property damage only accidents. Whatever the metric, most accidents are caused by other factors.

  4. Beautiful women walking on the sidewalk, Ferraris, snowstorms and passengers in my car are some of the things that can more distracting to me than talking on the phone. I hope you aren’t planning to ban those distractions as well.

    I agree that cell phones are distracting.

    And sometimes if you are driving by yourself, a phone conversation can make you more alert by breaking up the boredom of a long, a late night or early morning drive.

  5. I too fear for my life when I bike. You can always tell when people are texting.

    That being said I do not support changing the law. It is basically un enforceable

  6. Will,

    Using laws to “educate” is an abuse of their purpose. People who find themselves in violation of such laws do not become educated, they have their lives ruined. Drug laws, for example, have not served to “educate” anyone. The idea of giving police another excuse to pull over a driver who has not been driving erratically or too fast is an invitation to harassment and worse.


  7. I don’t support the law, as it goes too far and is unenforceable. I’m also a frequent biker.

  8. I have often narrowly escaped being run into by drivers concentrating on their phone messages rather than on the traffic. Please get this law passed for everyone’s sake. Don’t sit on the fence any longer!

  9. It’s a no-brainer for me: please vote YES on this bill. I’ve seen too much bad driving by people on cell phones.

  10. I strongly support the ban on cell phone use while driving. I see way too many drivers with one hand at their ear and one at the wheel. I think we need to gain a new respect for driving and reduce our own self-importance (are we so indispensable that we have to take the call now instead of later?)

    Just because there are other driving risks does not mean we should not reduce this one. I think your logic is flawed on that one. Plus educating people that distracted driving is dangerous can only help drivers to think more about other distractions too.

  11. I have almost been run over by drivers distracted by talking or texting on their cell phones several times and usually they are oblivious to what they have done. I DO hope you vote YES.
    Just asking people to be more careful hasn’t worked. We are all somewhat addicted to this amazing technology to the detriment of safe driving.


  13. Will, please vote no on the new law. Texting is already illegal, as it should be. The full AAA study (see its Appendix B) mostly finds no difference between cell phone use and listening to the radio. The NHTSA study does not distinguish between texting and phone calls and does not justify this regulation.
    The evidence instead shows that people are responsible with voice calls. This increase in police powers is as ill-advised as the seat belt proposal from a few weeks back.

  14. You’ve made the argument yourself. Overreaching and unenforceable. Enforce what we already have. Vote no.

  15. I encourage you to vote against the bill, because it is unenforceable and will only encourage riskier behavior by drivers and inconsistent interpretation by police officers. Based on the particulars of the law proposed, I do not believe it would be effective, and would risk doing more harm than good.

  16. I believe that the Driver must find a suitable place to park before answering his/her cell phone.

  17. I absolutely support the ban on cell phone use while driving.
    There is no question in my mind that many folks will die if you do not .
    To me it is not a no brainer , it is an obvious result.
    Research that says differently will be proved wrong.
    Not many eat subs while driving, but multitudes of drivers text and talk while at the wheel.
    Please support this legislation.

  18. Hi, Will,
    The primary distraction of talking on the phone is–wait for it–talking on the phone, whether the phone is handheld or on speaker. The *mental* multitasking is the main distraction. That said, I have seen plenty of drivers cut left turns dangerously short and make right turns dangerously wide because they only have one hand on the wheel and can’t properly stay in the turning lane. I think this is especially dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists, and for this reason I would urge you to vote *for* this ban.
    Keep up the good work!

  19. Thank you, Will, for these eminently rational perspectives on the matter of telephone use by drivers. I deplore it, but as the telephone comes to perform ever more and so many different functions it gets harder and harder to just say ‘no phones’.

    Perhaps rather than trying to legislate regarding phone use directly, the strategy should be to create an incentive structure indirectly. The obvious approach would be through the insurance companies. But if indeed cell phone use makes so small a contribution to accidents as you report, there is probably little interest in the issue there, and no prospect of the insurers creating substantial incentives.

  20. I agree on prohibiting use of cell phone hand held while driving. However as some folks stated, pushing it further will not work, as people could not be disconnected for so long while driving. This is harsh American reality, many could not afford to put away their responsibilities while drive no matter how far they go. Two adults have to work now to support their families, while kids are in daycare, so they trying to juggle all other stuff between work and time with family, making their career so they could afford thing for kids and family. We should focus on enforcing other laws which recklessly violated by some people. Drivers are not obeying simple laws such as “Do not turn on red”, or not stopping before pedestrian crossings, running red light, etc. And again who going to catch officers when they distract, no one above law

  21. Please support this ban on cell phone use while driving. As someone else commented, this is a no-brainer.

  22. Vote yes. There are great technological ways to make using cell phones while driving much safer (hands free devices), and they are not expensive to retrofit, simply plug them into the lighter plug. Handling screen devices while driving is extremely dangerous. Also there needs to be a simple set of rules that is enforceable by police.

  23. Impossible. Do many drivers, especially those unfamiliar with an area RELY on them for NAVIGATION. Not everyone can afford a car with navigation systems built in. I, myself am new in the Boston area and have found it invaluable and probably prevented accidents by using my cellphone to tell me what lane I should be in or what turn to take. It’s just not feasible to completely ban it and not fair to either. It would set us back decades.

  24. I am in favor of a ban on handguns-held phones. I’m not in favor of a ban on inputting into nav. systems. Currently I use the speakerphone function on my cell device and query the effect of a ban on having it anywhere near your head as I do hold it up near my mouth.


  26. I’d say “no”. I bicycle commute to work daily. As you say, I really dislike how the proposal lets affluent folks still have phone conversations the evidence says are just as distracting as the ones being banned.

  27. Another selective enforcement boondoggle, and as others have pointed out, cell phones have become vital for navigation, and many people (including myself) use them for news and information as well as music players. It’s a backward looking technophobic approach to the issue, that as usual would impact people of color, and the poor and working classes, far more than the affluent . You raise enough additional issues that I can’t see how this could be in good conscience called good, or even acceptable legislature.

  28. Will,
    I think at least 20% of people driving are on a phone. But I don’t see that the difference between driving with one hand and talking on a phone is any different from holding a cup of coffee while driving. The danger comes when trying to dial a number. Also, my car has a built-in GPS, but I can still manipulate the screen while driving, and that also can be distracting. So I would not favor a complete ban. (BTW – I see people on bikes on cell phones – would that also be prohibited?

  29. Will,

    PLEASE vote to ban use of cell phones while driving. Every idiotically dangerous driver usually turns out to be on their phone.

    If necessary, allow use ONLY if the user is pulled over and fully stopped with the engine OFF. The danger of roadside stopping might also make those chronic offenders think twice before pulling out their phones and risking getting hit themselves.

    Thank you for asking for opinions. Nothing is more important than paying attention while driving. An automobile is a killing machine when used irresponsibly, and it’s time these chronic users and offenders stop and think over priorities, responsibility, and adherence to both the law and to common sense.

    Best Regards,


  30. If we had some enforcement of the existing law we might know how to vote on new laws.

    What are the stats on how many violations (or at least written warnings, which I prefer for first offenses, because the inconvenience may be an effective punishment) for the laws now on the books?

    No point in adding new unenforced laws to the old unenforced laws, is there?

  31. Will, I agree with all of your points and concerns about focusing on the wrong things, unenforceable, disparity, etc but I would still urge you to vote to ban hand-held cell phone use, flawed as this may be, for the additional reasons you cite.

  32. Will, you’ve done a good job of stating pros and cons. However, the pros are much more important than the cons.

    Some points I didn’t see mentioned a lot. 1. You can input your destination on a GPS before you leave! You rarely change it en route — and if you do, you can pull over first.

    2. You can input a phone # before you leave, and you can use express dials (1-9) for the #a you use a lot. For another phone call, you can input it before driving, “send” it for a second, and then hang up — so it is the last number you called. For several #s, you can change your express #s temporarily.

    3. There are lots of inexpensive ways to put a holder on the dashboard, so you don’t have to look down. Also, there are inexpensive devices to put the calls on your radio ($10-20). For low-income folks, that’s a lot cheaper than missing work because of an accident.

    4. Laws can be modified to work better.

    5. Yes, police can/will profile — that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have sensible laws!

    6. Cyclists often do dangerous things, especially if they are using phones. Just a brief wobble may cause accidents, as may avoiding the cyclist. (BTW, I find such cyclists rarely wear helmets!)

    7. I won’t answer while driving. If you expect important calls, you can use a prepaid phone for them — so others cans’t call you — and pull over to call back.

    8. I once got a call, which I pulled over to answer. Without any checking about whether I was driving, I was given the news of an important, unexpected death. (While I sat there shaking, a cop car stopped behind me — after only about 2 minutes! I explained why I was sitting there, and the cop impatiently asked if I wasn’t ready to drive on. So I pulled back on, still shaking.

    9. Anything that requires you to take your eyes off the road, however briefly, is dangerous. (There’s a video that shows how much time you miss vision this way.)

    10. The idea of increasing fines is excellent. The point made by someone that one-hand-on wheel affects turning accuracy is a good one.

    11. I’ve been stopped for slowing down to check street signs. I think I’ll move to a GPS for this reason — safer.

    12. Please vote for this bill. Not perfect — but requiring perfect interferes with an important improvement!

  33. I am for the toughest cell phone laws while driving. According to my info, even hand free is dangerous. You bicyclists should be scared. As a driver I am scared. A man ran a stop sign aost hitting my car while talking on his cell Hoping that God is your copilot while on your bike, Sallye bleiberg

  34. Seems like an easy decision. Stand on a corner at any busy intersection for 20 minutes and look at people’s eyes. Many are not looking at the road.

  35. First of all, I love having this digital forum to read other points of views and to offer feedback to my legislator!

    I support the ban on handheld devices. As for the meatball sub example, another poster cited the law about “impeded operation” that should cover that corner case.

  36. Will,

    I agree with you on distracted drivers. There are more distracted drivers than ever on the road. It can’t hurt to get a law on the books against mobile phone use, but I also read the same research about hands phones being just as dangerous. To make matters worse, new cars are now coming equipped with touchscreens on the dashboard that are also very distracting to drivers. It’s impossible to legislate common sense. Educational campaigns are much more effective in my opinion.

    I think that emerging technology like self driving cars will soon resolve most distracted driver problems.

    I recently replaced my ancient 2002 VW with a new Subaru that has all the latest technology: collision avoidance systems with lasers to detect pedestrians and vehicles in front of me and automatically stop my car, blind spot detectors, cruise control that automatically applies brakes if the car in front slows down, etc. I feel that we are on the verge of a new era of intelligent vehicles.

    It can’t get here fast enough. Google is already developing a totally hands free self driving car. It may be some years away yet, but that day is on the horizon.

  37. YES: Ban hand-held cell phone use while driving. It’s a danger to be talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving a car, impossible to focus on the road

  38. Please vote yes on a ban: the fine tuning can come later. The NTSB and AAA study combine to offer the support for YES that you seek. More drivers than not during rush hour have a phone to their ear. Not only visually distracting, but mentally as well. Concern over impact on less advantaged is misdirected since they can be equally victims or causes of accidents and need protection at all costs.

    In September I was seriously rear-ended in the Route 2 construction area where traffic was going slowly; car totaled, driver distracted by phone and hit gas instead of brake.

    I support a total ban, easier to enforce. We got along for years without this distraction, people can surely pull over in an emergency but currently most are so obsessed with their devices that they live in constant distraction.

    Accident statistics are likely skewed since people hesitate to admit fault. No way to verify how many are caused by phone distraction. You were right in 2010. Let’s let Massachusetts lead in this as with so many other issues!

  39. Senator: I share your misgivings about the impact of this proposal. The real concern is “distracted driving” and its not clear how the prohibitions in this law (assuming it can be equitably enforced at all) will actually impact the degree of distraction. But what if, instead of trying to directly legislate behavior, the goal was to shape car-based technology which would then shape behavior? What if the law was written in a way to require that cars be sold with the ability to allow truly hands-free and eyes-on-the-road voice-powered use? The language would have to include a high-level description of what that would entail — detailed enough to be directive, open-ended enough to allow innovation. It would take some brainstorming to figure this out, but it might be possible — similar to the requirements for other kinds of safety (which, up to now, are mostly focused on the vehicle occupants rather than those around it).

  40. There are laws already on the books for this, wether someone is distracted, putting on make up, using cell and driving too slow.
    Why do we need laws for every individual item. Also the majority of police officer drive while on cell phones.

    It seems to be we are creating more laws on top of laws. Lets now ban putting on seat belt while driving. Using radio. Using mirrors, talking to passangers, etc

    Lets still with the laws we have and enforce them.

  41. Please vote yes. It’s at the point where i wish driverless cars were here today, as people have no respect for others in their use of phones while driving. We may not have the driverless car yet, but we can do this and save lives.

Comments are closed.