You’re driving in the fast lane, hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, when some oblivious driver veers into your lane. First you swerve, brake and beep. Then you pass and glance to the right.
Yup … Another Bozo on a cell phone, still gabbing like nothing is awry.
State Sen. Mark Montigny has seen it, too, and he wants to end the near-collisions. More to the point, he wants to prevent the accidents that do happen — crashes that sometimes kill or maim unsuspecting drivers, bicyclists, passengers and pedestrians.
Montigny, a longtime champion of cracking down on distracted driving, has watched as previous bills have either lost traction or been diluted. Now he’s back with a new measure that would strengthen our current law, which has been on the books since 2010.
The latest bill would ban drivers of all ages (not just junior operators) from using hand-held devices while driving. It also would impose serious fines: $100 for the first offense, $250 for the second and $500 (plus the dreaded insurance surcharge) for a third.
The full Senate has approved the bill, and it now awaits action in the House. Gov. Charlie Baker has backed it, and 15 other states have similar bans.
We support the measure, too. And we hope Massachusetts becomes state No. 16 — for a number of reasons.
First, smart phones are so common today that nearly everyone who drives is tempted to make calls in the car. And the solution is cheap and easy.
Five years ago, one might have argued that only the wealthiest of drivers owned vehicles equipped with handsfree calling. But technology has improved, and now it’s almost a standard feature. Even those with older-model cars can find a Bluetooth device for under $20.
Second, the 2010 law is ineffective, due to a poorly reasoned compromise.
It bans texting while driving, but it doesn’t prohibit talking on hand-held cell phones if you’re over age 18. That means before police officers can pull someone over, they have to guess the driver’s age. Then, if it’s an adult, the driver can simply say he wasn’t texting, but was dialing (not against the law for an adult). To prove the driver was texting, an officer would have to subpoena cell phone records — a lot of work for a minor offense.
“We’ve handicapped police,” Montigny explained.
Thirdly, public sentiment has changed. We’ve become more educated about the dangers of distracted driving, thanks to statistics that show the practice is responsible for a growing number of fatal crashes.
In 2015, 3,477 people died in accidents caused by distracted drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s roughly one-third of the 10,265 deaths that NHTSA attributed to alcohol-impaired driving for the same year.
We have laws against drunken driving and laws against speeding Montigny said, noting that such restrictions are not the work of intrusive, coddling big government but are simple protections for those who might be damaged by reckless drivers.
Finally, we’re certain that Montigny’s bill will save lives.
There are very few times when you can actually say, “Wow! If this law would have been passed years ago, lives would have been saved,” Montigny said. But if you pay attention to statistics, you know that by not passing this bill, people’s lives will be lost.
We’re hoping House leadership understands that final point and will push this bill to a timely vote — without diluting its intent.
You can’t stop everyone from driving with a cell phone, Montigny admits. And we know that some drivers will still cause accidents while tinkering with their in-dash GPS devices or radios. But this law will help police deter some of those who put us all at risk by driving with one hand on the cell phone.
The ultimate goal here is to reduce the highway mortality statistics, Montigny explains.
We agree. It’s a life-saver.