I had the right-of-way at 12:30 one day last week, protected by a Yield sign facing cars entering the main road. Already I can hear you laughing, as in, c’mon, girl. Do you really trust Yield signs? Well, no. But what was particularly irritating about this violator – woman in black SUV, MA license plate 585 DH5, was that, in addition to ignoring the Yield sign, she was obstructing her view of my car because her left elbow was on the window edge and her hand held her cell phone to her ear. She blissfully proceeded, ignorant of everything but herself and the person at the other end of the phone. If I hadn’t been paranoid and yielded to her, I would have been injured or dead or, at least, dealing with insurance adjusters and body shops.
I started writing about this in 2015, when a Portugese bakery truck nearly ran me off the road in the same kind of situation. The time is long overdue for Massachusetts to ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. The Senate has passed the measure twice, only to have it killed in the House through indifference. Even Governor Baker, facing increased numbers of accidents due to distracted driving, has reportedly come around to supporting the proposal to require hands-free phones.
As I noted years ago, my former WCVB-TV colleague David Ropeik, 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 or the woman in the SUV.
Sure, the issue is distracted driving more broadly. Distractions like putting on lipstick, sipping coffee, changing radio stations, 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.
House Speaker Bob DeLeo is cool to the hand-held cell phone ban, reportedly because he fears racial profiling. If the cellphone ban were subject to primary enforcement, so police could pull you over for an infraction rather than enforcing the ban only while stopping you for some other violation, the argument is the police would pull over disproportionate numbers of minorities. State Rep. Byron Rushing, a member of the leadership, is vocal on that, and even opposes making failure to wear a seat belt a matter for primary enforcement for the same reason.
There are legitimate concerns. The ACLU constantly fights the racial profiling under the pretext of traffic violations so police can do more invasive searches for which there is no probable cause. Aware of that concern, the Senate bill would require review of race and ethnicity data in the enforcement of the ban. According to Boston Globe writer Adam Vaccaro, a 2016 Globe analysis found minority status of drivers cited for texting while driving mirrored the state’s demographics.
A February 2018 poll released by MassINC revealed that 79 percent of Massachusetts residents support a ban on the use of hand-held cell phones, with an exception for emergencies. Only 16 percent opposed. Interestingly, nearly as many supported a ban on pedestrians using their phones while crossing the streets, but that class of stupid walkers is a subject for another day.
Naysayers see this as overreach, the long arm of the law reaching into our personal space. But to me drivers who are holding their cell phones up to their ears while talking, blocking their ability to see other cars, are driving to endanger. Obviously, shaming isn’t enough to change their habits. Maybe having to cough up real money in fines would be more persuasive.
Reporter Vaccaro quotes the House Speaker as saying the ban is still “under consideration.” If you want to up the ante on that level of passivity, call Bob DeLeo’s office at 617-722-2500. Record yourself in favor of aligning Massachusetts with the 16 other states that have already protected us from drivers like the oblivious woman in the black SUV. Drivers using hand-held cell phones and moving vehicles are a lethal combination.
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