Most Massachusetts commuters can share stories of witnessing fellow drivers multi-tasking with a cellphone behind the wheel, and yet a relatively small number of drivers since 2010 have been cited for violating the state's texting ban.
The problem, according to police and lawmakers, is that the current law is extremely difficult to enforce since it permits drivers to handle their phones.
Rep. Cory Atkins, a Concord Democrat, hopes to eliminate the guess work for police officers with a bill she has filed to require the use of hands-free cellphone technology while driving. Her bill would also increase the fines for a violation from the current $100 for a first offense of texting to $500 for touching a phone while behind the wheel.
Atkins hosted a luncheon at the State House on Wednesday to discuss the issue of distracted driving and ways Massachusetts can tighten its law to improve enforcement and reduce incidences of deadly crashes for teens and adults that happen when drivers take their eyes off the road.
With the stated goal of making driving safer, lawmakers in 2010 passed a law making it illegal to type, send or read text messages or email while driving. That law also banned drivers under the age of 18 from using cellphones for any purpose while driving.
The junior operator law has had success in reducing the number of deaths among 16- and 17-year-old drivers, but State Police Lt. Stephen Walsh said the texting ban has challenged police's ability to prove what a driver is doing with a handheld device.
As head of the Andover Barracks, Walsh said he helped spearhead a two-year initiative to send out dedicated patrols in four waves for three to four weeks at a time to enforce distracted driving violations. The officers handed out just 2,071 texting violations, 20 junior operator violations, and 2,104 impeded driving violations in cases when texting couldn't be proven or the driver was doing something else distracting.
The distracted driving initiative out of Andover, according to Walsh, accounted for a large percentage of the total number of citations issued statewide for texting while driving, based on Registry of Motor Vehicle Statistics.
Because drivers are allowed to dial phone numbers and use navigation, Walsh said police officers find it hard to determine whether a driver might be reading an email or looking at their GPS.
Further, Walsh said unless police have at least two officers in the cruiser and can follow a car for an extended period of time it can be difficult to spot violators while also monitoring traffic for speed or signs of impaired driving.
Drivers often hide their cellphones in their laps to avoid detection, Walsh said, and trying to watch motorists behind the wheel can often lead the officer engaging in his or her own form of distracted driving.
While the State Police do not take a position on pending legislation, Walsh said, "It would obviously make it easier for us, and lead to a lot more enforcement," if it became illegal for a driver to hold their cellphone.
Mary Maguire, director of public affairs for AAA Southern New England, said she expects AAA for the first time this session to back legislation in Massachusetts requiring the use of hands-free cellphone technology behind the wheel. She said the problem of drivers reading text messages "is at epidemic levels" in Massachusetts.
Though AAA's position has been that even hands-free cellphone use comes with distraction risks, Maguire said, "It's a departure for us, but it's an effort to support the texting ban and if getting the phones out of people's hands helps police enforce it then it's worth it."
According to AAA, 14 states and the District of Columbia ban handheld cell phones while driving for all ages, including New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont, New York and New Jersey. And at least 22 states are currently considering bans, including Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine.
Jay Winsten, associate dean for health communication at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said texting while driving and other forms of distracted driving account for over 1 million crashes and 3,000 fatalities every year in the United States.
Winsten, citing research done at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and other universities, said a driver taking their eyes off the road for two seconds can increase the risk of causing a crash by three times, equivalent to driving at the legal blood-alcohol limit.
"So here's a question: How tough are we as a society prepared to be to shift the perceived ratio of pain to gain in order to get blindfolded drivers, including ourselves, off the road?" Winsten said.
Three months into the new session, Atkins's bill has not been assigned to a committee or scheduled for a hearing, but Atkins said she believe the issue has a lot of momentum on Beacon Hill and could pass this session. During the last two-year session, a hands-free driving bill cleared the Committee on Transportation then stalled in the Public Safety Committee.