Not long ago, I was exiting Route 128 for Route 30 on the Newton/Weston line. Cars merging into Route 128 are supposed to yield (note to Massachusetts drivers: that means give the other driver the right of way). My path was about to cross that of a paneled truck belonging to a Portugese bakery. Not surprisingly, the driver neither slowed down nor yielded. What made things worse was that he was holding his cellphone to his ear with his left hand, which meant that his arm was blocking his ability to see my car. It could have been an absolute disaster.
I was furious and called the phone number painted on the side of truck. I asked to speak to the manager. I told her one of her drivers had nearly crashed into me because he was on his cellphone and had blocked his own view, after he had already failed to yield to traffic exiting the highway. She said she had several drivers on the road and asked for the license plate of the offender in question. As if I had time to read both the phone number of the bakery and the license plate. I sweetly suggested she just warn all her drivers to stop using their cellphones in their trucks.
Five years ago, Massachusetts outlawed texting while driving, but it did nothing about the use of hand-held cellphones. So even the texting ban is not enforced. Now the legislature has a chance to pass legislation that would limit drivers’ cellphone use to hands-free devices. My former WCVB-TV colleague David Ropeik, now a risk analyst affiliated with Harvard, maintains that hands-free phones are even more dangerous because they create a false sense of security and don’t minimize our distraction. That’s counter-intuitive to me. If a driver’s phone hand is not blocking his view of other cars, that’s slightly safer than the bakery truck driver was operating.
Ropeik is right that the core issue is distracted driving. The Saturday night after my near miss, my husband and I were at a red light on Route 9 near Cypress Street in Brookline when we were rear-ended by a young man from Natick in a mastodon of a red Jeep SUV. When we pulled into a gas station to exchange information, he was appropriately apologetic, volunteering it was all his fault and explaining he had looked down to change the radio station. He looked at my husband’s relatively new car and said matter-of-factly, “Looks like $7000 worth of damage. Well, that’s what we have insurance for.”
Notwithstanding his cavalier attitude, the fact remains that more than 300 people die in car crashes in Massachusetts annually, with about 4000 injuries. Substantial percentages of those are no doubt due to distracted driving. That can be for any number of reasons: putting on lipstick, sipping coffee, checking the kids in the back seat, even consulting a GPS. But inability to eliminate all distractions shouldn’t distract us from controlling a few that would make a real difference in our safety.
Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have banned handheld cellphone use while driving, and Massachusetts should follow suit. It should be a primary law, meaning police should be empowered to stop violators just for doing it rather than enforcing a violation only while stopping them for some other infraction. This would be especially helpful in improving the driving habits of younger drivers, who are among the most frequent perpetrators.
Naysayers see this as overreach, the long arm of the law reaching into our personal space. But to me drivers who are holding their cellphones up to their ears while talking, blocking their ability to see other cars, are driving to endanger. Shaming isn’t enough to change their habits. Maybe having to cough up real money in fines would be more persuasive.
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