fb-pixel Skip to main content

Mass. ban on phone use while driving isn’t working, new data show

A driver uses a phone while behind the wheel of a car.Spencer Platt

On the eve of Memorial Day and the annual summer driving surge, new research suggests that many Massachusetts drivers are ignoring the state law that forbids handling a smartphone while driving.

Cambridge Mobile Telematics, a Cambridge firm that collects digital data from millions of cars, says that Massachusetts drivers spent 28 percent more time handling their phones behind the wheel in 2022 than they did in 2020, the year Massachusetts enacted a law requiring drivers to use phones only in hands-free mode.

“Distracted driving is getting worse, but we have the power to change that,” said Matt Fiorentino, CMT’s vice president of marketing. “We’re doing the right things. We need to do more.”


The Massachusetts law, which took effect in February of 2020, forbids the use of phones or any other electronic device, except in hands-free mode. The law also bans fiddling with the phone at stop signs or red lights. Drivers can touch the device to activate hands-free mode or GPS navigation, but only if the phone is attached to the dashboard or windshield.

In 2020, the Massachusetts drivers tracked by CMT touched their phones an average of one minute and 54 seconds per hour of driving. By 2022, the average had increased to two minutes and 26 seconds.

Other states aren’t doing much better, as phone use while driving increased by more than 23 percent nationwide during the same period.

CMT is a leading provider of driving data to insurance companies worldwide. Many car insurance companies offer special discounts to drivers who install apps on their phones to monitor their driving habits. CMT collects and analyzes this data for insurers, who use it to set rates and encourage safer driving habits.

For their Massachusetts survey, CMT studied data from millions of trips taken by thousand of drivers. The monitoring apps use the phone’s GPS, gyroscope, and motion-detection chips to figure out when the phone was in a moving car and whether its touchscreen was being used. The software can tell the difference between a phone in someone’s hand and a phone in a dashboard mount, based on its motion signature. Fiorentino said CMT can even tell when the phone is being used by the driver or a passenger.


In the first few months after Massachusetts and seven other states enacted hands-free laws, data from these states showed a 13 percent decrease in phone use while driving. But the improvement didn’t last. “The awareness kind of fades over time,” said Fiorentino. By the end of 2022, phone use while driving was slightly higher in the eight states than it had been before the practice was outlawed.

Fiorentino said Massachusetts needs stronger enforcement of the law, and greater awareness among drivers. He said that if phone use while driving had declined 28 percent from its 2020 level (instead of increasing by that amount), there would have been nearly 12,000 fewer car crashes in Massachusetts in 2022, and 30 fewer fatalities.

Deaths on the nation’s highways soared during the COVID era, despite a decrease in miles driven during the worst of the pandemic, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. While fatalities fell in other advanced nations, US fatalities reached more than 42,000 in 2021, an 18 percent increase in just two years.


According to figures from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, road deaths in the Commonwealth rose from 336 in 2019 to 439 last year, a 30 percent increase.

According to MassDOT, the state has been cracking down on distracted driving. In 2020, law enforcement officers in the state issued nearly 29,000 citations and warnings for distracted driving, but the number rose to about 44,500 in 2021 and 43,000 in the first 10 months of 2022.

A statement issued Thursday by the Massachusetts State Police warned travelers to take the hands-free law seriously. “Citations with fines up to $500 may be issued to drivers found violating this law, which has been in place in Massachusetts for more than three years,” the statement said.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.