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For Mass. drivers, hanging up is hard to do

The new ‘hands-free’ law goes into effect Sunday. But making the transition could be tough for some motorists who haven’t kicked the deadly habit.

A woman drove along Washington Street in Newton using her phone. Police were present to alert motorists that the new hands-free law goes into effect Sunday.
A woman drove along Washington Street in Newton using her phone. Police were present to alert motorists that the new hands-free law goes into effect Sunday.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Massachusetts waited so long to ban hand-held cellphone use while driving that some motorists have made up their own rules for themselves.

They check their text messages — but only at red lights. They fire off an e-mail — but only when they’re stuck in traffic. They stash their iPhones in their laps and allow only a quick peek downward at Twitter.

Each of these strategies was already illegal under a 2010 law designed to crack down on the dangerous, occasionally deadly scourge of distracted driving. But the rules — official and otherwise — have been difficult to enforce.

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On Sunday, when the state’s new “hands-free” law bans all manner of hand-held cellphone use, Massachusetts will finally join the ranks of neighboring states that passed the same laws years ago.

But at a time when we’re more tethered to our phones than ever, and the need to check them can feel like a compulsion, kicking certain habits might be a lot harder than it would have been two decades ago, when New York passed its first hands-free law.

“It’s going to be extremely hard just because we’re so used to being attached to our phones. It’s like a magnet," said a 27-year-old who may or may not have given his real name — “Eddie Grant" — as he walked into a Boston branch of the Registry of Motor Vehicles Thursday. “That’s going to be hard. Extremely, extremely hard.”

The purpose of the new law is obvious: More than 3,000 people died due to distracted driving crashes in 2017 alone, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. State and local police will at first let drivers off with a warning, through the end of March. After that, offenders will be slapped with a series of increasing fines for each offense.

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That means no holding your phone to make or receive calls. No sneakily scrolling through Instagram or reading and sending text messages. Not at red lights. Not in dead-stopped traffic. Not at all. Much of this was already illegal here, but the difference between typing a text and dialing a number was difficult to discern from a police cruiser. Now? If your phone is in your hand, you’re almost certainly breaking the law.

Despite the clear danger and severe repercussions, some drivers say the change will be challenging.

“I think it’s going to be hard,” said a South End resident who didn’t want to give his name, but admitted he’s resorted to throwing his phone into the back seat to keep himself from almost automatically glancing at it. “It’s going to be a new learning curve, that’s for sure.”

Outside the RMV, at the corner of Surface Road and Hanover Street, at least seven drivers were spotted clutching their phones in one hand or glancing down at the screen over the course of a few minutes.

“It will probably be hard for everyone,” said one gentleman at the RMV, who at no time during an attempted in-person interview stopped looking at his phone to make eye contact with a reporter. “Not me though.”

Even those implementing the law understand that old habits die hard.

At a news conference in Newton Thursday, Governor Charlie Baker, who signed the law in November, conceded that it was long overdue. He said Massachusetts "consistently rates among the 10 worst states in the country for distracted driving.“

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State Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the new legislation “will require behavior change because there’s a lot of people who’ve got very used to” holding their phones.

“Even people who wouldn’t actively use their phone while they are driving would pick it up at a stoplight,” Pollack said. “I think all of us have to unlearn behaviors that we have been learning since smartphones became part of our lives."

Rick Riley, deputy superintendent for day operations and traffic for the Cambridge Police Department, recalled a recent trip he took on a Logan Express bus. He watched from above as motorists below on I-93 passed by while deep into their phones.

“Easily a simple majority, if not a large majority, of people seemed to be manipulating a phone or some sort of electronic device,” said Riley, whose department put out a video this week to remind people of the changes.

There’s a reason why some people can’t seem to tear away, said Dr. David Greenfield, medical director of Greenfield Recovery Center and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine: The way people use their smartphones while walking around or sitting on the couch is typically how they use it in the car.

“There’s essentially little or no change,” he said, referencing a study he did with AT&T in 2014, as part of the cellphone provider’s “It Can Wait” campaign. “We text, we e-mail, we look up stuff, we check our stocks, we check our bank balance ... that’s what the data shows.”

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Greenfield, founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, said he believes everything the study found a few years ago “is probably as true now, if not more true."

“We now have one full — probably close to two generations now — that were raised with smartphone technology,” Greenfield said. “We’re talking about people that have never really known not to have one or known what it’s like to drive without one.”

Greenfield said he wished that the state’s new law would completely eradicate this type of activity, but it’s likely it will only put a dent in it.

“It will slow it down, but a lot of people are going to do the ‘cop drop,’ ” he said. “They’re going to hold the phone, and then when they see a cop, they’ll drop it.”

But if New Hampshire and New York can get used to it, said Riley, the Cambridge police officer, so can we.

“We may have a reputation for being stubborn and independent,” he said, but "I definitely think it will succeed.”

Globe Correspondent Meghan Sorensen contributed to this report.


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.