Cell phone ban would affect student drivers

by Beacon Staff • February 13, 2008

Drivers in Massachusetts may soon be forced to break a few habits behind the wheel if proposed legislation banning texting and requiring hands-free cell phone devices passes through the Massachusetts Senate, a move that would affect cell phone-savvy college drivers across the state.

On Jan. 24, in response to fatal accidents in Taunton and Southbridge involving teen drivers sending or receiving text messages, the Massachusetts House debated and passed a bill that bans motorists from using hand-held cell phones except in select emergencies.

The bill passed with an overwhelming majority, 107-47, in the House.

In addition, the legislation would ban the use of laptops and Personal Data Assistants while driving, though it will not include GPS or audio devices.

The bill would fine drivers $100 for the first offense, $250 for the second and $500 for offenses after that. Drivers under 18 could also face license suspension-a significant penalty, since many teenagers use their cell phones while driving.

Emerson students from the state expressed mixed reactions to the bill.

"I think it's really good that Massachusetts is considering becoming a hands-free state," said Kristen Murtha, a junior TV/video major who commutes from Franklin, Mass.

"It's actually really dangerous to be texting and driving at the same time. I've seen a lot of people doing really stupid things on the highway."

A survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration discovered that almost 80 percent of all crashes and 65 percent of all near-crashes occur when the driver is distracted.

The same survey also concluded that the leading distraction is dialing or talking on cell phones.

Currently, according to the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, Massachusetts law allows drivers to hold their cell phones in their hand as long as one hand stays on the steering wheel at all times, though drivers can be cited and fined for driving unsafely while distracted.

By passing this legislation, Massachusetts is following a trend-both national and international-towards cell phone restrictions on the road. New York, New Jersey, Washington D.C. and Connecticut already have existing bans, while California and Washington's are slated to take full effect in July.

Other states have partial bans or are currently debating similar legislation.

House Representative Ted Speliotis said his voters, particularly seniors concerned about younger drivers, want the ban passed.

"People accept more and more that drivers are distracted," Speliotis told The Salem News, "to the point they're genuinely concerned when they make a left-hand turn at an intersection that the other person isn't paying attention,"

Corey Efron, a WLP major who commutes to Boston from Kingston, said he agrees that using a phone on the road is potentially hazardous.

"I think that driving is dangerous and talking on the phone or texting makes it that much more dangerous because it's taking attention off of the road," the freshman said. "I've ridden with friends who text while driving and there have been times when I felt unsafe."

According to a survey by Nationwide Mutual Insurance, 37 percent of drivers aged 18-27 text message while driving.

However, other Emerson students feel there are other distractions people do while driving that are unregulated and possibly even more dangerous.

"People would still smoke cigarettes, eat or drink while driving and those are just as distracting as talking on a cell phone," said Tej Brar, a sophomore sound design and audio post production double major who commuted in his car from Allston, Mass. last semester. "[This ban] would affect any driver coming in [to school] because you might have to call people to tell them you're late or something."

The Registry of Motor Vehicles reported 16,905 car crashes in 2007, 399 of which were attributed to cell phones.

When compared with the 453 recorded in 2005 and the 434 in 2006, the number of cell phone-related crashes is declining.

But even those in favor of the ban question its effectiveness.

"I'm not really sure that this law will change much," said Efron. "I hope that it will, but in reality, people are still going to text and talk on their phones while driving."

Sen. Steven Baddour, the Senate chairman of the Transportation Committee, who opposes the bill, told The Salem News he believes the restrictions won't do much good.

"You can't legislate common sense and you can't legislate against stupidity," said Baddour. "If people are going to text-message while driving, changing the law isn't going to change behavior."