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Thousands of Mass. drivers got warnings for distracted driving since hands-free law took effect last year

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

More than 40,000 drivers in Massachusetts have received warnings for distracted driving since the state’s hands-free law took effect in February 2020, according to the state Department of Transportation.

“The Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) has recorded 53,638 motor vehicle citations which includes 40,181 warnings for distracted driving since the Baker-Polito Administration’s ‘hands-free’ law took effect on February 23, 2020,” according to the statement, which was released Wednesday.

A Registry spokeswoman said in a follow-up e-mail that the “53,638 motor vehicle citations were all issued for distracted driving violations,” and that of those, “40,181 were issued as warnings (no fines).”

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MassDOT said it was putting out the information to underscore the need to avoid distracted driving as summer travel picks up.

“Distracted drivers are a hazard on the road,” said chief executive and Acting Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler in the statement. “Drivers must have eyes on the road ahead because even the smallest distraction in a vehicle can have deadly consequences.”

According to MassDOT, the hands-free law bars drivers from using electronic devices, unless they’re in hands-free mode. Drivers can’t read or view texts, images, or videos, unless the material’s helping with navigation, in which case the device must be mounted in an appropriate location.

Drivers also can’t make calls, except with the aid of technology such as Bluetooth, officials said. In addition, the law requires police to report data on violations, which’ll be shared with the public, the statement said.

Any use of phones or electronic devices, even in hands-free mode, remains illegal for drivers under 18, according to the release.

Flouting the law comes at a cost.

According to the statement, punishment includes a $100 fine for a first offense, $250 for a second offense, and $500 for a third or subsequent offense. Motorists who commit a second or subsequent offense have to complete a distracted driving prevention program.

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So far, the statement said, 74 drivers have completed the online training, and 87 others are “currently required” to finish it.

“We cannot be attentive and defensive drivers if we are distracted by our phones,” said Safe Roads Alliance president Emily Stein in the MassDOT statement. “Hang up and drive for your own safety and for everyone else you share the road with. Hang up for your kids in the backseat, who one day will be drivers themselves. They are watching you closely, and if you text or talk while driving, then it’s more likely for your kids to be distracted when they start driving.”

State officials also included statistics showing how hazardous distracted driving can be.

From 2015 to 2019, the statement said, 14,982 fatal crashes nationwide involved a distracted driver, out of 169,009 such crashes. During that time period in Massachusetts, officials said, the percentage of fatal crashes involving a distracted driver was 12 percent, or 204 out of 1,675.

When Governor Charlie Baker signed the bill in late 2019, he said it would prevent tragedies on the road.

“When a driver on an electronic device hits something or someone, that’s not an accident,” Baker said at the time, according to the State House News Service. “It’s a crash that was avoidable, so this is a very proud day for Massachusetts where we join the other states in New England and do more to help prevent further injuries and horrible tragedies.”

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Material from prior Globe stories was used in this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.