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New cell phone ban changes rules for drivers

George Rizer for The Boston Globe/File 2013

John Dorfman knows he shouldn’t check his phone while driving, but occasionally, he said, he can’t resist the urge to check a text message.

But now that Massachusetts has joined about 20 other states, including the rest of New England, in banning all hand-held cellphone use behind the wheel, the financial manager in Newton said he’ll likely think twice before glimpsing at the screen.

“I’ll succumb to it less,” Dorfman predicted.

That’s the hope of law enforcement officials and advocates across the state, after Governor Charlie Baker on Monday signed the hand-held phone ban into law in a bid to cut down on distracted driving.

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Starting in late February, drivers will be required to use hands-free technology, like a Bluetooth system, to talk on the phone. The new law carries a $100 fine for a first-time offense, $250 the second time, and $500 for any offense beyond that.

Motorists will also get a small grace period: Until the end of March, first-time offenders will receive only a warning.

“When a driver on an electronic device hits something or someone, that’s not an accident,” Baker said. “It’s a crash that was avoidable.”

Baker once opposed such a ban, but came out in support of one about two years ago, and his administration made it a priority in 2019. He signed the bill at a State House ceremony attended by road safety activists and families of loved ones who were killed in distracted driving accidents.

“This is not a panacea for road safety, but we all . . . are so proud of this bill because it will save lives,” Emily Stein, leader of the Safe Roads Alliance, who advocated for the ban since her father was killed by a distracted driver in 2011, said at the ceremony.

The proposed ban has long boasted widespread support in public opinion polls, so perhaps it’s not surprising that most drivers interviewed Monday said it would have little effect on their daily habits.

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Rachel Casey, for example, said she often speaks on the phone while commuting from Reading to Boston — but always through a Bluetooth connection. The ban would have been appropriate years ago, she said, but is especially reasonable now that hands-free technology is so easily available.

“There’s more and more cars equipped with that as a default,” she said. “Before, it was more of a premium.”

After years of hesitation and then months of contentious negotiations, lawmakers reached an agreement on the legislation about 10 days ago. The Legislature passed the bill before breaking for the holidays last week.

The compromise had been held up by concerns that the legislation would result in increased incidents of racial profiling; House and Senate negotiators struck a deal in which law enforcement will be required to log and analyze the race and gender of drivers who are issued warnings and citations.

Drivers will still be allowed to make a “single tap or swipe” to initiate hands-free mode, and may use navigation apps like Waze or Google Maps if their phone is mounted to the dashboard. Drivers can also be exempted from the law if they can prove they used the phone because of an emergency.

Massachusetts transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack suggested the new rules will allow police to bolster enforcement of an existing law that bans texting and driving by making it clear that it is illegal for any motorist to hold a phone for any reason. Law enforcement officials have long complained the texting ban, passed in 2010, is inadequate, because police cannot easily prove that drivers are violating the law just because they have a phone in their hand.

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Pollack added that the law will also stress driver education. It requires revisions to the state’s driver’s manual to focus on distracted driving issues, and for second-time offenders to take a distracted driving class.

The bill was also celebrated by pedestrian and cycling advocates who say those users are especially vulnerable to a distracted driver. “If you have a driver who’s really not paying attention to the roads at an intersection when they’re turning or merging or drifting between lanes, it becomes a serious danger for people who are on bikes,” said Galen Mook, executive director of the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition. “Especially when you have a roadway system in Boston where more or less the bike network is integrated with the street.”


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.