OK, let’s ban hand-held cell phone use while driving.

I’ve gotten a huge volume of feedback on the legislative proposal to ban hand-held phone use.  Most of that feedback was in response to my ambivalent post laying out the pros and cons of the proposal.  The feedback I have received has convinced me to support the proposal.

The feedback has driven home for me a few points. First, hand-held cell phone use really is worse than hands-free use. Driving with a cell phone is something that most people have tried and the overwhelming verdict of experience is that it is dangerous.

Everyone drives one-handed a percentage of the time, but driving with a cell phone is like driving with one hand tied behind one’s back — it is hard to break off the call and use the phone hand.

More importantly, if one has to look down and dial, that is really as bad as texting.  The visual/manual engagement involved in operating that hard-to-see box requires moments of complete attention during which road hazards may be missed.

Hands free use is less dangerous, but is still dangerous.  Again, the experiences offered in the hundreds of comments I’ve received confirm the research.  The brain engagement in imagining the person at the other end of the line and maintaining the conversation with them is greater than that involved in an easy stop-and-start conversation with a passenger.

The official statistics suggest that cell phones are involved in a very small fraction of accidents.  Further while cell phone use has exploded, the overall accident rate has continued to fall. However, there is good reason to believe that cell phone use in accidents is under reported.  And there is a broad consensus among my constituents, based on myriad observations, that people on cell phones are making a lot of mistakes.

The conveniences involved in cell phone use are huge and include real safety benefits from time to time.  So, we cannot realistically ban them completely, but the move to hands-free-only is a step in the right direction.

As I mentioned in my first post on the subject, the law may be hard to enforce.  Violations can be concealed and the police have more important things to do.  But the overwhelming support for the proposal means something — it means that many people are willing to follow the law voluntarily and will take some pride in doing so.   Laws cannot create consensus that does not exist (as in alcohol Prohibition), but they can ratify and strengthen consensus on what is right and what is wrong.  In this case, I believe that is worth doing.

I also expressed reservations that the new law would favor people of means who can acquire hands free phones.  The good news is that the costs of high quality phones have dropped dramatically.  The economic hurdle to legal hands free phone is getting lower and lower.

I came down against primary seat belt enforcement, but I come down in favor of this cell phone ban.  Distracted driving endangers everyone.  People who don’t buckle up are most likely to hurt themselves.  The concern about racial profiling is real in both cases, but in this case, the possible benefits of sending a strong message against distracted driving are too great to pass up.  It is important to remember that the penalties are modest — civil tickets ($100, not a moving violation, for first offense), not incarceration.

I hope that we will pass the law and combine it with an awareness campaign to discourage distracted driving.

In this case, as in many others, I have benefited greatly from your feedback.  Thank you!

Keep the thoughts coming on possible wrinkles.  I’ll try to assure that drafting issues that speak to special cases and concerns are addressed.


Published by Will Brownsberger

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

57 replies on “OK, let’s ban hand-held cell phone use while driving.”

    1. I have to ask, did the new law ban hand-held use for “vehicles” or for “motor vehicles”? I can see how it could have been written either way, but wish to point out that (1) I can ride my bicycle no-hands far better and longer than I can drive no-hands and (2) as far as I know there are no bicycles with a bluetooth-enabled sound system for your cell phone.

      🙂 🙂 🙂

  1. Will thanks for the consult, but I still believe this legislation is wrong headed and a “knee jerk” reaction to what is sociological issue best addressed through education and implementation of penalties via at-fault insurance judgements. What we’ll end up with is (a) a largely meaningless and useless law and (b) another excuse for the police to pull over people without cause. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the commonwealth views this.

  2. Thank you. I wish a law could be sponsored regarding human decency and etiquette, but realize that’s just my little fantasy.

    And I support and appreciate your concern about racial profiling but am honestly flummoxed about why so few use seat belts.

  3. You were wrong about seat belts. As I understand it, hands free is ok in your mind. If so I support that.

    1. I support our current law that requires seat belt use, but says officers cannot stop people for that reason alone — a ticket can be written only if they stop a person for other reasons.

      I support the current proposal to ban hand-held mobile use while driving, but would not ban hands free use.

  4. There should be a law on hand held cell Phone use while Driving in a car or Truck or bus. It is only for there Safe while Driving in a car or Truck or Bus.

  5. You have once again shown thoughtful weighing of legislation, in this case to ban hand held cell phone devices. It isn’t a matter of one hand driving so much as a more likely distracted driving, something I myself hadn’t fully comprehended. So let’s do what we can for full attention driving! Even if it may be difficult to enforce.

  6. There already is a law for distracted driving.. therefore i dont understand how or why we need another law. But thanks for taking time to reach out to everyone.

  7. Will, thanks for your support for this first step against distracted driving. Until autonomous cars are fully developed and tested, people need to pay attention while driving. You don’t want to be the supposedly expert driver (even while distracted by a cell phone call or texting) who kills a grandmother or a child.

  8. Go get them Will. Use of cell phone use while driving is distracting and dangerous

  9. Thanks, as always, for the thoughtful analysis. I support your position. I’m also concerned about the “initiate a feature or function” language, and hope that you work to help get that cleaned up.

  10. Racial profiling should not be a matter of concern for you in this case, public safety is a priority in this case. This legislation should be passed. $ 100 fine is too little. Incarceration should be a penalty too, endangering other people’s lives while driving should be criminalized. There is no excuse.

    1. We can’t fine and imprison bad behavior out of existence. The war on drugs is a great example. We need to start with real driver education and encourage and create incentives for continued good behavior. I believe stiffer penalties should apply in cases where it can be proved that distracted driving played a role in an accident. especially in cases involving bodily injury.

  11. Senator, The way you handle the inquiries, responses and internet discussions is terrific.

  12. Thanks for the follow-up and for explaining your reasoning; very helpful. I didn’t know about your vote against the primary seat belt law – I encourage you to support that law if it comes up again! While not wearing a seatbelt may be most detrimental to the person in the seat, aren’t we all paying more $$ for the medical expense incurred? There’s the same issue of difficult enforcement – but that in itself shouldn’t deter us from passing such a law, in my opinion.

  13. Your amazing care with your constituents, to include our opinions as a community, in order to do the right thing in your voting, is astounding. Thank you so very much for doing the great job you do in being so inclusive.
    If only other politicians who represent us would do this, perhaps voters would be less angry.
    You have tremendous integrity and it gives me hope for the future.

  14. Thank you very much. Keep us posted. I hope the bill passes.
    Nancy Haase
    And yes, thank you so very much for being in touch with the community.

  15. Congratulations Will. When out waking
    it is hard to find a driver that is not
    doing something with his phone.

  16. Thank you for sharing your decision commentary with the community. You have covered the issue – pro and con – from multiple perspectives, and in the end have arrived at the choice that I believe most benefits everyone. When I shared your level of engagement with the constituents with my Holbrook cousin, he replied “Now there is a guy who really likes his job.”

  17. I agree with you 100%-distracted drivers all around me and they are all on their cell phones.Thank you. Carol Post

  18. Will,
    Thanks for the effort to engage in the discussion about cell phones and driving. Regardless to whether or not the ban passes, there is still a message in it that should alert drivers to at least think about not using the cell phones while driving. Among other things, I now turn off the radio when driving in heavy traffic. This avoids potential distraction. I would also suspect that the last thing a driver involved in an accident would report is that they were chatting on the cellphone just before the accident.
    Dan Healey

  19. Thank you for your thoughtful and deliberate consideration of so many aspects of this issue, as well as for your clearly explained rationale for supporting the ban on cell phone use. And thank you for seeking and listening to feedback from your constituents. You are a credit to our representative form of government.

  20. Thanks for sharing the feedback you received – and your final decision on the matter.

    Your use of the email platform to seek feedback, to share current issues, and to share your final thoughts on these issues is phenomenal – and helps constituents like myself feel like we are actually a part of the process!

    Randy Wehling

  21. I’m wondering where the $100 dollars is going. I would like to see at least half of it earmarked for highway safety education. When I’m driving in the rain or snow I see so many people driving so fast they must be hydroplaning. That’s dangerous for everyone on the road. Drivers need to be reminded of safe driving practices. Accident rates may be going down but their are still too many avoidable deaths. We all need safety information reminders. It could be done with TV or signs. Consider earmarking some of the fine money for safety education.

    1. A hundred dollars is plenty. That would be a big hit for persons of modest means, and for it to effectively deter the luxury car crowd, it would need to be above $500 I think.

      Safety education is important, I agree. Do schools even teach drivers’ ed any more though? Outreach via PSAs and high school web sites wouldn’t be hard to instigate. Online messaging and courses should be developed and promoted using celebrity spokespersons.

      Finally, as cell phones are multimedia devices, this is a good time and occasion to press for state support of media literacy programs, which I think both kids and adults need equally as much. I wouldn’t couple educational initiatives in this bill, however; I would implement driving and media education efforts via companion legislation.

      So Will and readers, if are you aware of any such bills or existing state-funded driving and media safety programs, please inform.

  22. This great news to hear Senator!! Not a day goes by where I don’t see a car operated poorly by a driver that is not paying attention. An outright ban of cell phones will tremendously impact safety on the road and make sure that everyone is paying attention.

    I do think that this does not go far enough with a simple $100 fine though. I think that a second offense should impact a drivers insurance premiums.

  23. Your position is well reasoned. Thanks for consulting and representing us. Elizabeth Richardson, Belmont

  24. Sharing some of your ambivalent feelings, I support a ban on hand-help devices as a means of re-norming more mindful driving. My support was reaffirmed today when I saw the driver of a double decker tour bus talking on her cell phone as she drove past the Cambridge Public Library and the high school during lunch hour when the street is typically thick with pedestrians. Maybe the existing law already restricts the operators of non-MBTA buses, taxi and livery services (soon Uber?) from holding phones while driving — if not, maybe the new law should and also impose higher penalties on them.

  25. Although I am no fan of driving while chatting, it can come in handy for letting people know you’re stuck in yet another Rte 128 traffic jam, and it’s very useful for reporting accidents… so a total ban might not be the way to go.

  26. Thank you Will. My only suggestion is that people must pull over and turn off their engine before using a cell phone.

    For those parents concerned about missing a call from school or child, they should try to remember that in the century before cell phones provided instantaneous connection, many, if not most of us, survived to argue this issue.



  27. I’m grateful for your deliberative analysis of the pros and cons of driving with cell phones and for coming down on the side of banning hand-held cell phones.

    I am the emergency department nurse who listens to stories every day from victims and grieving families who are shocked by injuries and deaths caused by drivers distracted by cell phones.

    The comment preceding this correctly pointed out that for decades we survived without instant telecommunication in every vehicle. We survived on pre-planning, safety training, and support of law enforcement infrastructure which nobly protects our roads and drivers.

    I believe the ban should be total with the exception of law enforcement officials. Individuals with reduced capacity to handle potential difficulties when driving (getting lost, having a flat tire, having an episode of a known recurring medical problem) should adjust their driving times, routes, and buddy passengers to cope with such problems.

    Enforcement of the law is based on eliminating the expectation of cell phone use. Children should not be allowed to touch phones in cars. Every toll point on a highway should have cameras documenting phones being used and license numbers on those cars. Officers on patrol should be required to stop x number of cell phone users during every shift, across the span of the patrol area.

    We as a civilized society can do this.

  28. AAA says that even hands free cell phone use distracts drivers for up to 30 seconds.

    Distracted driving: Study: Hands-free calls affect drivers’ focus
    By Rob Bhatt

    If you’re like most people, you probably sometimes need a few moments to focus on your next task after you end a phone call or send a text message, even if using a hands-free system. But what if your next task required you to avoid a vehicle, a pedestrian or hazard that unexpectedly entered your path? Would you be mentally prepared to properly react? If you’re like most people, new scientific answers to these questions will probably surprise you.

    In its latest look at in-vehicle mental distractions, a Utah-based research team discovered that test subjects needed up to 27 seconds to fully restore their mental focus on driving after ending a call or text message from voice-controlled systems in their cars. These lingering distractions, referred to as “residual costs,” were determined by measuring participants’ reaction times to potential hazards as they drove on suburban roads.

    “These residual costs are notable,” said David Strayer, the University of Utah psychology professor who led the study, sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “At 25 mph, a vehicle would travel up to 988 feet before the residual costs completely dissipate. These findings have implications for people who think it’s safe to dial or send a text message at a stoplight, because the distractions from these interactions are likely to persist after the light turns green.”

    In prior research, Strayer’s team established a five-point scale to assess distraction levels resulting from activities such as listening to the radio (category 1) and sending voice-activated texts (category 3). A set of complicated math-memory problems was used to establish the top end of the scale (category 5).

    The most recent study analyzed distraction levels resulting from the use of voice-controlled information systems available in 10 vehicles and three smartphones.

    Among the vehicles, the Chevy Equinox had the lowest, or best, distraction rating (2.4), while the Mazda 6 (4.6) had the highest, or worst, rating. Of the smartphone systems, Google Now performed best (3.0), followed by Apple’s Siri (3.4) and Microsoft Cortana (3.8). Using any of these three systems to send text messages significantly increased distraction levels.

    AAA considers distractions at category 2 or higher to be unsafe. None of these systems met this threshold.

    “Developers should aim to reduce mental distractions by designing systems that are no more demanding than listening to the radio or an audiobook [a category 1 distraction],” said Lloyd Albert, senior vice president of public-government affairs for AAA Northeast. “We would advise consumers against using these new technologies while behind the wheel, even at a stop sign or red lights, given the high risk that distraction may last much longer than people realize.”

    Based on the performance of 257 participants in three age groups (21-34; 35-53; 54-70), researchers determined that in-vehicle systems placed greater mental demands on older drivers than on younger drivers.

    After an initial analysis, participants kept their cars for a week before returning for a second round of testing. Even after familiarizing themselves with their vehicles’ information systems, participants showed only marginal improvement in driving performance, leading researchers to conclude that such distractions cannot be “practiced away.”

    Published: November 20, 2015


  29. Being a new driver in Boston and being so used to typing an address into my phone, I am nervous that this ban would limit my mobility and be enough grounds to receive a ticket. I think that typing into a GPS device (be it on the phone or a GPS navigator) should be removed from this proposal. I would like to know that I am not breaking the law.

  30. I most definitely favor the ban on cell phone use while driving, unless it’s hands-free. Even hands-free can be distracting, but looking at one’s phone while driving is a recipe for accident and injury. Having one hand holding the phone is also dangerous. If one needs or wants to use the phone, s/he should pull over and stop.

  31. I think this bill discriminates against people with older cars and older phones.

    If the phone and car have bluetooth there is no reason to use your hands to hold the phone. But I’ve been in a car where the driver was very distracted by a phone call with no hand holding involved.

    Old cars and cheap phones require hand holding.

    My car doesn’t support bluetooth and I set my phone out so that I can easily answer urgent calls from my children. I have to use my hand.

    I personally refuse to engage in any complicated conversation while driving. If an urgent call requires complication, I hangup, pull over and callback.

    Bluetooth phones don’t prevent distracted driving. Handheld phone don’t cause distracted driving. It’s how the driver engages with the conversation that causes or prevents distracted driving.

    1. I share your concern and that was one of my reservations about the bill. But I am convinced that we need to move in the direction of fewer distractions and this bill will take us in that direction.

      1. Then are we going to ban radios too?
        Seriously we have had them for years and they are at least as distracting because you have to glance at it when you use it.
        I often prefer to hand hold my phone for an important conversation that is received (I never initiate it)while driving. Having an automatic leaves 1 hand free to either pick up the phone or change the radio. If you ban the phone then you might as well ban the radio too.

  32. With this new law, will it be legal to have a phone in a mount on the dashboard, for example to use for navigation?

    What exactly is meant by “hands free” in this new legislation? That you cannot hold the phone in your hand or that you cannot use your hand to control the phone? If it means the latter, note that this would mean that all Uber drivers would be breaking the law, as they all use the Uber app on their phones for navigation and to accept rides (although their phones are all mounted on the dashboard when in use.)

  33. For those of you who are interested, here is the actual text of the bill.


    “Section 13B. (a) No operator of a motor vehicle shall use a mobile electronic device, unless the person is using the device in a hands-free mode, and shall not touch or hold the mobile electronic device while operating a motor vehicle except to activate, deactivate, or initiate a feature or function. No operator of a motor vehicle shall use a mobile electronic device or other device capable of accessing the internet to compose, send or read an electronic message or to input information by hand into a global positioning system or navigation device while operating such vehicle. An operator of a motor vehicle who holds a mobile electronic device to, or in the immediate proximity of the operator’s head while operating such vehicle shall be presumed to be in violation of this section. For the purposes of this section, an operator shall not be considered to be operating a motor vehicle if the vehicle is stationary and not located in a part of the roadway intended for travel. ”

    To me, it’s very confusing. It sounds like it’s making it illegal to hold to phone up to your ear while driving or type an address into a GPS app, but you can otherwise use the phone in your hand or mounted on the dashboard. I think the police are going to have a very hard time enforcing it.

      1. Glad to hear the wording will be clarified further. Thanks for supporting measures to improve traffic safety!

  34. I was out of the country for two weeks. just read your piece in watertown tab. well thought out position, liked that you considered financial reasons some would not have means for hands free technology but came down in favor b/c of safety concerns.

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