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 agree with the proposed ban. Driving while using a hand-held device is very dangerous to other drivers and to pedestrians.

  2. Good and insightful comments here. I support this bill but would prefer a total ban on cell phone use. We should pull over if we need to use the phone.

  3. Dear Senator,

    Thank you so much for your attention to this vitally important issue. Our lives and well-being depends on it. I wholeheartedly agree with your advocating a full ban on cell phone use, and your thought that “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”, (Chuck Sizler at Brigham and Women’s extensive research on sleep deprivation has borne this out). With just a quick glance at stats for accidents due to distractions of any kind, the dangers are clear: cell phone use (hands free included), texting, eating, shaving, putting on make-up, falling asleep, or driving under the influence. Even without distractions, stats show that driving is one of the most complicated and dangerous things we do. The ONLY thing we should be doing in our cars is driving WITH FULL ATTENTION.

    Please watch this amazing, heartbreaking short film by great director Werner Herzog for A,T&T about texting:

    I would LOVE to see a public service campaign in the state to drive (no pun) these life altering issues home, as well as stiffer fines for violating texting (and hopefully cell phone use) laws.

    It is difficult since we all depend on our phones for personal and business use, but there is no other safe alternative.

    Being a safe driver or biker isn’t enough if others aren’t. I’ve been driving for 3 decades and have a stellar driving record. Last September I was back ended while stopped in traffic at Fresh Pond. The nice man who hit my car stopped and asked, “what happened?”. I told him and asked if he was on his cell phone. He said he was looking down at his GPS, and took responsibility. Last November, I was driving out of a parking lot in Newton when a woman backed out of her parking space into my car, smashing my headlight. She asked why I didn’t see her and said that she didn’t hear me honk my horn twice. My insurance agent (and her’s) cited her for distracted driving. Both drivers were 30 years old. Luckily, no one was injured.

    Thank you for reading my long email. I wish you and everyone safe biking and driving.

    Kind regards,

  4. Distracted driving is a real problem. We have come to accept, culturally, that it is OK to engage in lots of other mental and physical activities while driving a car, even if it could easily reduce our ability to do so safely. And our auto manufacturers are busily coming up with even more stuff to put into the car to distract us drivers.

    While it is imperfect and may have some downsides, I would vote for banning use of handheld devices (as NH already has). It is past the time that we pay more attention to culturally and legally dealing with the issue of distracted driving, until we can be sure that the OTHER car is self-driving.

  5. IMO, cell phone use while operating a vehicle is a safety hazard and should not be allowed. Please vote to make this practice against the law. Not only does it visually and mentally distracts the operators mechanics and the split second decision process, it keeps the driver from being present and totally observant. Cell phone use is an impairment of the driver’s awareness of surrounding vehicles, bicyclist and pedestrians, putting us in harms way. Please Ban cell phone use.
    thank you

  6. Nothing is perfect here, but two hands on the wheel are better than one. (especially when someone is trying to park) If the law is for hands free everywhere, the cell phone industry will be sure to catch up if they haven’t already. Holding the phone near your head is too hard to enforce and will cause problems. Banning them all together is unrealistic. Are we going to ask the police to stop people who appear to be alone in a car from moving their lips?

  7. There are so many pros and cons, I went back and forth for a while. Ultimately, I don’t agree with the ban. I don’t think the research supports it, and I believe it would be unenforceable. Thank you for asking our opinion!

  8. Yes – please ban usage of cell phones while driving.

    Erratic driving while talking on cell phones is a daily observation. It is a subject of much discussion with friends and family. I’ve found few people who defend it.

  9. I definitely think that hand-held cell phones should be banned when driving. Despite people’s belief that they can multi-task science has shown that this is not at all true!

  10. I am against the use of cell phone use(texts, calls, and surfing the web) by the driver while the vehicle is moving. If the car is at a complete stop then the driver should be allowed to use their cell phone.

    Also if the driver is using the cell phone as a gps they should be allowed to as long as it is placed in a spot that doesn’t compromise the safety of the driver or anyone else on the road.

  11. I vote for a full ban on cell phone use. Until voice activated systems are universal in cars.

    I also advocate lowering the highway speed limit to 55 mph. Save oil, pollution and lives.

  12. Seems like a no-brainer to me!
    How many times have you encounter a driver changing lane or suddenly “navigating” outside his/her lane or turning without blinkers just because one hand is busy holding the phone? How many times have you encounter a driver almost running you over because his/her focus was on the ongoing phone conversation?
    Are we smarter in the US that we can do multiple tasks while driving, when most of the european countries have banned the use of pbone for years?

    No question for me: ban the use of phone while driving!

  13. I think it should be banned. Even if you are not texting you have to look at it to pick it up or to dial a number or even speed dial. It just makes sense to not let ANYONE do something that takes their eyes form the road on a regular basis.

  14. Dear Senator, I really appreciate all the thought you have put into this. I cringe when I see a driver who is most likely carrying on a non emergent conversation on a cell phone. But I also hear your argument for difficulty to enforce this, and therefore putting more onus on police officers.

    Is there another way to focus on safety while driving – an ad campaign or something – that points out the dangers of distraction from cell phones, eating, putting on makeup, etc. while behind the wheel?

    Safety is the issue – cell phones are only one distraction.

    The discussion must have been interesting. I’m not sure how I would vote either….

  15. I favor a ban on the use of hand held devices in all circumstances. I would prefer a total ban on all devices whether hand held or not but I doubt such a prohibition would pass so I would go with the hands held ban. I would however take out the exemption for emergencies. If it is a true emergency any sane operator, I think, would pull over to make the emergency call. This exception will allow people to still use devices and if and when cited will create a greater burden on the courts when trying to decide on whether something was or was not a true emergency. Distracted driving can be caused by many things but using a hand device, particularly particularly while looking at the device has to cause the greatest distraction. So I am in favor of the ban.

  16. Hi Will – Thank you for soliciting our feedback on this.

    You have a lot of good points about why to implement this ban on mobile phone use. I agree with you, and think this is an important start.

    Many other states have similar bans. This may only be a small step, but it raises awareness about the safety hazards of mobile phone use by motorists.

    Cell phone use is especially a hazard for vulnerable road users, as you say.

    I thank you for considering a vote in support of this ban!

  17. Let’s just require a disapproving grandma in every passenger seat. I don’t think we can solve everything through legislation. Any law you’re talking about just invites more evasion. A lot of business gets conducted by phone during our region’s lengthy commutes.

    There should be some changes but they need to be cultural and technological, not legislative.

  18. Thanks for your detailed explanation. Any distraction to a driver raises the risk of an accident, including my telling my wife that she should pull off the road rather than continue to talk on her cell phone. I am aware that police officers are often looking down at their lap tops and wonder how many accidents that visual distraction causes. I am dubious about enforceability of the proposed statute.

  19. Dear Will,

    Difficult issue. Cell phone use for gps guidance should be allowed provided the driver isn’t fumbling with phone while driving. But that one would be hard to prove. I have to admit that cell phones are becoming better at gps guidance than any gps device out there. On the other hand, I have found myself nearly missing a serious accident while I was talking on my cell, hands free, because I was looking up a number with the car dials (blue tooth). I would recommend banning all cell phone use, hands free or not, except when in gps mode or in an emergency. Enforcing all this is the hard part.

  20. Yes Senator, the use of cell phone while driving, most definitely should be banned. I always wonder why they didn’t do it at the time they banned texting. Realistically, I don’t believe the statistics regarding the low percentage of accidents caused by drivers using cell phone is accurate, since I doubt anyone would admit to it. Furthermore, the financial burden could be mainly on younger adult (over 24). And if it is the matter of emergency, people can always pull over to make a call ; something that a sensible person would do. Thank you!

  21. Hi Will,
    I appreciated meeting you at the WPL last Monday.
    I’m against the law. I use GPS and handsfree on my phone and am extremely careful when I interact with it. Many are not and this is a problem. I would rather see harsh penalties (loss of license, criminal or civil) for anyone involved in an accident while texting/typing on the cell phone (assuming such info is available from telco or phone). Same as DUI for any type of provable distracted driving (don’t know if meatball sub stains on the collar would qualify!) Also, perhaps car-phone bans for offenders. Cops pulling good drivers over because they touch their GPS is overreaching. I’d rather see them follow an offender and get them on a moving violation. (Can’t wait for Google cars so we can text and take a nap while transporting!)
    Jeff Johnson

  22. Driving down Belmont Street I saw a women on the phone (to her ear) and her other hand was out the window flicking ashes from her cigarette! I have also seen this sort of thing with food and a phone. But the most common thing I see, or in this case, don’t see, is lack of directional signaling – right handed people use their left hand to hold a phone to their head (so they can drive with their dominant hand) and so there is no hand available to work the turn signal. (as if signaling wasn’t already nearly extinct)

    I have a 2010 car, 7 year old technology for NAV system. I can have the system dial a # directly or have it dial by voice.

    Additionally, my iphone also can be asked to call anyone by name or to dial by a number I say out loud.

    So while I would agree that poorer communities may suffer b/c their cars may not have the built in technology – their phones most certainly have a speakerphone system that allows them to use it hands free and there are headsets that can be purchased for a small fee that allows the same.

    Please, please, please, vote for this in the affirmative. If the police do their job with these infractions (which they will be able to see) then there will be a reduction. (will there be an escalating fine I hope?)

    I would also like to think that as the technology becomes less costly and more cars are outfitted with it as standard equipment, the phone-to-the-head would become less and less of an issue. (can congress require this in all new cars?)

    A full ban, I do not think is very enforceable. How would you know if someone was talking or singing to the radio? At least this is a step forward.

  23. Thanks for your thoughtfulness on this iissue.

    I favor not passing the bill..mostly because people need to learn their own levels of safety. I personally do use GPS and hands free cell phones. I also listen to music, change channels, etc. In the old days and still today I use mmaps. I do sometimes eat in car. These are personal choices and all distractions that I must manage.

    Related to your question and not part of this bill is how to handle professional driver… Bus, mbta,vans, etc. They, particularly those working for mbta or amtrak, have no rights to use cell phones during work. The fines/punishment for these infringements shoukd be loss of job and in the case of fatalities if aaggravated, very severe. I hope there is a bill and discussion about tthis.

  24. People who have hands free can keep their eyes on the road, but they can’t keep their minds on the road. Why not go for safety. Call when you arrive. Pull over if you can’t wait. We are too tied to electronic leashes. The idea that a phone call or text takes precedence over a 5000 lb steel box going 60 mph is ridiculous, when you think about it.

  25. Thank you for asking. I’m in favor of the ban and would ask you to support it. I wonder if law enforcement agencies have expressed an opinion on this.

  26. Yes, you hit the nail on the head. This lot is going a bit too far. The cell phone is extremely useful device for navigating and communicating with people you are meeting. A better life would be to require roads to have enough pull off zones for communication.

    Thank you for asking!

  27. Just read some other comments. I favor anot passing the bill but instead mandating stiffer fines by instance carriers for those who have accidents as a rusilt of hand held devices. I realize all drivers won’t fess up..some will be known at time of accident

    This adds deterent and allows competent drivers to continue.

  28. I would have said yes but reading the bill I’m not sure. And…I worry that any time some people scratch their ear, it will allow an officer to stop them, “I thought I saw a phone”. Could that part come out? If not, and with all the other reasons you point out, vote no.

  29. Hi Will,
    Cell phone use while driving is essential to many.
    Hands free works in other states, but is there a significant difference between hands free & handheld regarding auto accidents?
    Google maps have been adopted by many simply because you can make changes while driving, not so with auto factory installed GPS. Google maps is constantly being upgraded with innovations that make driving safer.
    No change to the law is preferable, hands free (earbuds or Bluetooth) has been adopted elsewhere (NY, CT). It would be interesting to know their experience over the past 5 years.
    Best wishes,
    Steve Gramolini

  30. Definitely we should discourage use of cell phones or other devices which cause one arm driving. The traffic is too much already and we need no distracted drivers around us. And I’ve witnessed bad driving with cell phones in use. Enforcement? Difficult but surely not impossible to at least check out drivers. But I’m a strong two-hands-on-the-wheel advocate. And we do use GPS.

  31. My older brother, Bob, acquired an antique Rolls Royce, of which there are (were) three in the world. He and his buddies tore it down, rebuilt it, got someone to make matching upholstery.
    On a sunny Sunday, he was in left rear, a young man who had helped the job drove, girl friend in right rear, her father in the right front. They took a test drive, everything went smoothly, and as they eased toward Bob’s driveway, the teen aged son of his next door neighbor came roaring out of his driveway in a Ford Bronco, turned right, and ran head on into the Rolls.
    He was talking to his girl friend on his cell phone.
    Bob’s head hit the ceiling giving him a scar from scalp to face. “The older man lost an eye. The driver had the steering column pushed into his chest, fracturing his sternum. Girl friend was not injured.
    The car was made with a steel frame the likes of which are only used on railroads and tank now. It was twisted.When they took it to a shop that specialized in straightening bent frames, the man said he couldn’t do that one. The car was a total loss. The insurance company paid, after two years of haggling, the money that Bob originally paid, nothing for all the restoration (and the valued added).
    Ever since then I have paid attention to the research that has been done about the odds for an accident when the driver is distracted by any number of things.
    But this is one of them. Of course, I urge you to vote for the ban.

  32. I believe this law should definitely be approved, and strengthened to ban hands-free cellphone use while driving also. From my observation and experience, the distraction of a driver on the phone, in any mode, significantly diminishes conscientious road attention and careful driving, and endangers the driver’s car and other vehicles. Hands-free, speaker-use or other variant usage approaches do not meaningfully diminish the effect of mental focus on the phone conversation reducing attention to safe driving.

  33. Thank you for asking!

    I worry a lot about those clearly consumed with their cell phone conversations while I’m driving and cycling, and I believe a law would help because those involved in an accident while distracted by a cell phone conversation might then be more seriously penalized by fines, etc. for their part in causing an accident.

  34. Ban cell phone use while driving. Over the past few years I had several near miss accidents because the other driver was distracted while on the cell phone while driving.

  35. Hi Will,

    Many “work” out of their cars or use travel time to catch up on phone calls. In my observance, texting while driving remains a huge problem, I suggest raising the fines on this.
    I don’t know what the data shows but it seems some appear to drive slower when on the phone. I would rather police not be tied up processing someone for holding a cell on speaker phone when they could stop the many aggressive drivers that run red lights, cut off others and those OUI. Thanks for soliciting input and for your service!

  36. The data around the impact of cell phone use by automobile operators is overwhelming.See the web site hosted by the National Safety Council:

    While it is unlikely to abolish hand-held cell phone use, a “no hands” law would be a step in the right direction, equivalent to the “no open container” laws in the early days of the ongoing crack-down on drunk driving.

    This should not be a “close call”. We do not tolerate drunk driving because it is reckless and irresponsible. The evidence on cell phone use while driving shows it too is reckless and irresponsible. This is a First Amendment issue, where the operator has a First Amendment right to “swing their fist that ends just short of my nose.”

  37. Having worked on regulations much of my professional life, I strongly believed that voluntary compliance was the best we could hope for but that the regulation sent a strong message about the desired behavior. No one seems to understand that automobiles are killing machines. All distractions impair one’s ability to make quick decisions. We are just plain arrogant today thinking that we can do a million things at one time. I strongly believe that that is a total myth and that every additional activity you are trying to do is diminishing your ability to do any of them. Every person, regardless of age, should be required to take driver’s training and all distractions need to be eliminated. Driving is a stressful, difficult activity, if done well and safely, and we need the population to understand that. Vote for this one, Will, and thanks.

  38. I urge you to vote YES on the proposal to ban use of hand-held cell phones while driving.

    This is common sense, a good first step towards at least drawing attention to the most obvious and probably most dangerous form of distracted driving.

    With today’s technology, there is no longer any valid excuse for driving with a cell phone in one hand !

  39. Please vote for the law. I have been almost hit/sideswiped/run down by drivers visibly using cell phones more times than I can count. Those who reckon themselves ‘careful’ cannot be trusted. Better yet, could the measure be amended to ban all cell phone use by drivers, or at least all cell phone use by those by those not holding commercial licenses? As for navigation, people ought to learn to map out and memorize their routes before setting out. Too many lives are at risk not to pass this, even if it is (in my opinion) not stringent enough.

  40. There are countless distractions while driving. The radio, billboards, bad drivers all contribute to being distracted. We cannot reasonably eliminate all distractions. At best, we can minimize them. I believe current statutes cover this ground adequately. Additionally, technology outpaces legislation and I do not think we can get ahead of it.

    My concern with taking this further are two fold. First, it will be very difficult to monitor and discern. Many newer cars come with multifunction touch screens. Am I using my GPS or changing the radio station? Am I dialing a number or checking my tire pressure. (Moreover, most new cars come with features that won’t allow the driver to access certain features while the car is moving. I think technology will continue to improve the safety of our vehicles and, in time, accomplish what this legislation desires to do.

    Secondly, and more importantly, since it is difficult for a third party to know with certainty the action of the driver, this law could be used as an excuse to pull someone over (the 21st century version of the broken tail light).

    The possibility that this legislation could be easily abused to violate civil rights, in light of the advancing safety technology, leads me to the opinion that it is not appropriate legislation.

  41. I can understand your difficulty in making this decision, I also worry that people with less means will get targeted. Perhaps we need to raise the fines that exist already, and be more aggressive about education. I have been in the car with people and worried about them driving and speaking on the phone at the same time. I can think of several occasions where I have wanted to ask the person driving to stop talking on the phone. It’s a complicated issue because I too agree used properly it avoids accidents. The problem is people don’t use common sense and you can’t fine them for that. Good luck

  42. I would support an imperfect law as being part of the educational process to send the message to the public that distracted driving is against the law. When I go in to locales that have a cell phone-related law, I notice fewer people flagrantly holding a phone while driving. All kinds of use of one’s hands while driving, or ears, or eyes will create a distracted (and dangerous) driver, but I don’t think that justifies failing to recognize one specific and very common hazard. As to whether the ban should be full or partial, I think I would support a full ban over a partial, but would take whatever we can get.

  43. Will, a comment on some comments I’ve seen. There are people saying rolling cell phone use is “essential” for small business.

    This can’t really be true, unless we had no small business before cell phones, and I know that we did. If the ban is statewide *and enforced*, there’s also no competitive disadvantage in stopping to take a call. If it’s not enforced, then scofflaws get ahead, so we do need to be sure that the law is both enforceable and enforced.

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