Update, Monday, November 25: Governor Baker signed the bill today. It is law.

Today, House and Senate conferees filed their report on the hands-free cell phone safety bill. The bill is virtually certain to be approved by both branches and to become law shortly.

The new hands-free rules will take effect in late February 2020, but violations will be handled with warnings through March 31, 2020.

Under the new law, you can talk to your cell phone, but you cannot touch or even look at it while driving, except in true emergency. You can touch it once to activate hands free mode. You cannot look at material on your phone, except at navigation maps, but then only on a mounted phone without touching it. You can hold and touch your phone if you are fully off the public travel path.

The law will mean behavior changes for most of us, but I believe that most of us are ready to make the changes. It is time we all start driving more safely by renouncing cell phone contact.

Here are the exact new rules specified in Section 9 of the report:

  • No operator of a motor vehicle shall hold a mobile electronic device.
  • No operator of a motor vehicle shall use a mobile electronic device unless the device is being  used in hands-free mode.
  • No operator of a motor vehicle shall read or view text, images or video displayed on a mobile electronic device; provided, however, that an operator may view a map generated by a navigation system or application on a mobile electronic device that is mounted on or affixed to a vehicle’s windshield, dashboard or center console in a manner that does not impede the operation of the motor vehicle.
  • . . . 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 public way intended for travel by a motor vehicle or bicycle.

Hands-free mode is defined in Section 1 of the report as “operation of a mobile electronic device by which a user engages in a voice communication or receives audio without touching or holding the device; provided, however, that a mobile electronic device may require a single tap or swipe to activate, deactivate or initiate the hands-free mode feature.”

The new rules apply to all mobile electronic devices, including not only phones, but also laptops, personal digital assistants, pagers, etc.

The emergency exceptions are narrowly drawn and include only use to report that

  • the vehicle was disabled;
  • medical attention or assistance was required;
  • police intervention, fire department or other emergency services were necessary for the personal safety of the operator or  a passenger or to otherwise ensure the safety of the public; or
  • a disabled vehicle or an accident was present on a roadway.

First violations draw a $100 fine; second, $250; third or subsequent, $500. Second and subsequent offenders will have to attend a distracted driving education program. First and second violations, whether by adults or by junior operators, will not affect insurance, but a third offense will be a “surchargeable incident” which will raise insurance rates for the driver. Special limitations and penalties apply to school bus drivers and transit operators.

There has been broad consensus in the legislature for some time about these new rules. Our existing laws against distraction through mobile devices were unenforceable and all of us recognize the dangers of cell phone use.

What held up final approval of the bill for several months were concerns that the new rules would be used in a discriminatory way against people of color. To address these concerns, the bill strengthens data collection requirements. Records of motor vehicle citations will be collected by the secretary of public safety and security and analyzed by a qualified institution (selected by the secretary). The results of the analysis will be published and if a policy agency appears to be engaging in racial profiling, the agency will need to collect additional data and to have its officers undergo bias training.

Additionally, the secretary will release aggregate numbers in machine readable format. I understand the term “aggregate numbers” to include detailed cross-tabulations that can be the basis of independent analysis as to each law enforcement agency.

The disclosure and analysis of bias-related data will evolve over time in response to public comment and to support that evolution, the secretary is required to conduct public hearings annually. The secretary is also required to make initial improvement suggestions by April 1, 2020.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

46 replies on “Hands Free At Last”

    1. It has been many years since I first applied for a driver’s license but it seems to me there was a rule that you had to keep both hands on the wheel while driving. I searched the RMV’s over 100 pages today and I don’t see that anywhere. But if that is the case, no “hands free” laws are needed.

  1. Thank you. Policy making always lags behind technology, and I‘m glad there’s finally a clear law that may (help to) rein in ingrained behaviors. My colleague’s best friend was killed 2 years ago because a driver was surfing Amazon on his phone. For safety, we need to treat cell phone use among drivers like an addiction.

    1. And indeed it is an addiction Ms. Lipson; I am not an M.D. but I have been driving for a living for over 50 yrs. on a daily basis, even now in semi-retirement and never have seen rear end accidents like we have been seeing for the last ten years.
      And like all addictions, the this type of treatment and cure (ticketing, fines, and even surchargeable insurance penalities) is not going to be effective for a majority of the afflicted.
      Eventually, I am sorry to say it will have to be legislated that this type of distracted driving be treated in the same manner that drunken driving is…the harsher penalities for which has greatly reduced the incidents of folks drinking and driving.

  2. Hooray! Not only will this save lives and reduce the number of injuries, it will make road users more civil and transportation generally more pleasant.

  3. Will, How does this affect use of Apple CarPlay or Android Auto (i.e. the phone functions appear in a limited way on the car’s screen)?

    Also, what about use of a phone that requires face id?

    1. Or for that matter a modern car’s touchscreen controls for temperature, audio, and the jillion other things we used to use buttons and dials for? Not that I’m complaining, Will. This is great.

  4. It is about time. WTG!
    But, how does the insurance industry get a double piece of the pie? Accidents will be reduced which will reduce claims and they are getting cash for no reason.

      1. I agree with both of you. The key word here is “continue.” There is no surcharge until the third offense. I don’t believe this is true with speeding tickets, even ones from out of state. With all the speed traps, arbitrarily set limits, and uneven enforcement out there, I believe the same leeway should apply, unless the first offense is egregious. The law is heavily slanted in favor of insurance companies; the points and charges stay with you for years. I have no points (clean record) by the way.

  5. This is an important step in ensuring that lives ate save and streets are safer for everyone. There are a lot of small exceptions here in the initiation of hands free and navigation, can you elaborate on how law enforcement officers will be able to enforce this?

  6. We have needed this bill for a couple of years now and I am glad that we finally have it as it will save lives and injuries. I am not happy that it took this many years to get it done!

  7. Thank you!
    Hopefully it will be reinforced by the police.
    Canada’s rule are stricter that the fines are much more aggressive and it is working. Hopefully it will be the same here.
    It is really out of control.

  8. Although I am whole heartily support the ban on handheld use of phones – restriction for use it in navigation appears to be extremely excessive to me. In reality, none of the voice interfaces work even 70% of the time as intended. Less so on the older car models without Android Auto or Car Play.
    And if you need to change navigation or just reboot a frozen phone and need to poke the screen – what are the options? Stop dead in the middle of the freeway? Expose yourself to police scrutiny (who will be happy to use it as an extra revenue source)?

  9. I support this, but think that enforcement will be difficult. We have yield signs, but how many drivers actually yield to traffic?

    The big problem is that too many people cannot simply put their smartphones down. Ignoring a new text message or call can be nearly impossible for many. Does one need to respond to the majority of texts and calls immediately? Je pense que non.

  10. A good step in the right direction. I question whether it can be enforced – and the fines are way too low.

  11. I like this law, but I have driven and walked around the Boston area for 50 years and I assure you it will not be enforced. You cannot stand on most intersections with a traffic light for five minutes without seeing a car running a red light with impunity.

    1. Congratulations on getting this done, and thank you for giving us a full explanation of what the bill covers.

    2. Sadly, I have to agree with Dan. I’ve lived in back Bay for 27 years and I have come to the point where I don’t step off the curve because inevitably one or two cars are bound to run a red light. How about installing cameras on the intersections and mailing people moving violations along with a photo of their car running the red light?

  12. Comments about enforcement are well taken. In a state where enforcement of the most basic traffic laws is the weakest I have ever seen, the effect of this law will probably be little more than a token gesture to the concerns it addresses.

      1. Why do cyclists get a free pass on this?
        Not only is unfair and selective enforcement, but it seems to me that bicyclists would be at greater risk than motorists if the distraction from cell phone usage results in an accident.

        1. The law is designed to protect others from distracted drivers, not so much to protect distracted drivers. Cyclists will hurt themselves playing with their phones, but motorists surrounded by thousands of pounds of steel are much more likely to kill others.

  13. As an ED nurse in Boston’s busiest trauma center all I can say is Hallelujah! I see so many distracted drivers on the road and I wonder who they are going to kill: themselves or an innocent person. Thank You for your work on this.

  14. Thank you for keeping us informed about this long-overdue legislation. Let’s hope it passes. It will no doubt take time to get drivers used to NOT talking on their phones as they drive… Such a dangerous practice.

  15. “Under the new law, you can talk to your cell phone, but you cannot touch or even look at it while driving, except in true emergency. You can touch it once to activate hands free mode. You cannot look at material on your phone, except at navigation maps, but then only on a mounted phone without touching it. You can hold and touch your phone if you are fully off the public travel path.”

    Who will know what we do/did and how will they know? How in the world can this be enforced?

  16. Good first step. However, this does not keep a driver’s mind on driving. Accidents sometimes happen within split seconds and even then, the best driver’s don’t always have the best avoidance reaction when it does.

  17. This is wonderful. Would it be possible to edit the text here to make it absolutely clear that texting at a standstill in traffic is NOT allowed? Although the wording makes this clear, I think it might bear stressing, as I can see people thinking stoplights or a traffic jam might be ok…

  18. I applaud this law, but like many of our MA laws, I think we will need to “get used” to applying it. I do not drive often but when I rent a car, I think I will have to break this law to use the navigation. I try to configure navigation while in a parking lot, and if I get lost, I pull into another parking lot to mess with it. But sometimes when driving, you have to interact with your phone because it does something weird – like ring – and you really need to touch it or do something right away – like decline the call. I think the March period as a way to “get used” to applying the law is a good measure.

  19. Thank you for pushing this through. Such a relief–this will save lives! Our entire family are cyclists, and I worry each time my husband or one of our four children goes out on our very crowded roads. Also, I have several teen-aged drivers, very responsible. I trust them to drive safely. I don’t trust the person on his/her cell phone.

  20. Interestingly, the recent piece on NPR painted a much less stringent picture. They (and I think there was a policeman in the car) have discussed that you can actually touch your phone to dial the number but then you’ll have to leave it alone. Same with navigation. You can touch the phone to turn it on, but not actually type.

  21. It has been many years since I first applied for a driver’s license but it seems to me there was a rule that you had to keep both hands on the wheel while driving. I searched the RMV’s over 100 pages today and I don’t see that anywhere. But if that is the case, no “hands free” laws are needed.

  22. I am retired, but worked for several years for a company that used 2-way radios to communicate with the service trucks. Is this now banned under the new law?

  23. Well, I guess we are all nothing but children and should be treated as such, according to everyone here.

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