Get the facts about the new Massachusetts hands-free cell phone law

When there is important insurance-related news that could impact you and your family, the team at Fred C. Church always does our best to put the information you need to know at your fingertips. That’s why, today, we want to alert you to the most important details of the new Massachusetts hands-free cell phone law that will take effect on February 23, 2020.

The Fred C. Church team has dug into the details of the actual law and identified some of the specific rules and requirements that could affect you and other drivers in your household. Below, we share what we uncovered.

Four key points you should know about Massachusetts’ new hands-free cell phone law

#1: Beginning February 23, 2020, if you are aged 18 or older, you may only use a mobile phone, or other electronic device, while driving if it is in hands-free mode.

While Governor Baker signed the hands-free cell phone law back in November 2019, the actual effective date is February 23rd. That’s not so far off, so if you haven’t already gotten in the habit of using your mobile device hands-free while driving, there is no time like the present.

It’s important to understand that hands-free cell phone use is not just the law when your vehicle is moving down the road. Even when your car is in standstill traffic on 495, or you’re waiting at a stoplight or sign, you are still in what’s considered to be an active lane of traffic. As a result, in these situations, you are still subject to the rules of the new hands-free law.

For any junior operators, aged 16 ½ or 17, cell phone use while behind the wheel is still strictly prohibited. Massachusetts has some pretty strict Junior Operator Laws and Safe Driver Laws in place, and young drivers are not allowed to use their mobile devices in the car, even if they use them hands-free. They’ll have to wait until they turn 18 to do so.

If you or someone in your household must use a cell phone in handheld mode, then you should pull off into the breakdown lane, a parking spot, or another safe area that is not intended for travel by a motor vehicle or bicycle. This will help you remain out of harm’s way and within the law.

#2: You will face penalties and fines for not complying with this hands-free cell phone law.

Between February 23rd and March 31st, violators of this law will likely only receive a verbal warning if pulled over by police. This five-week “grace” period is intended to give drivers time to transition to the practice of not holding their mobile devices while driving. After this timeframe, though, there are significant penalties and fines for not following the law’s requirements.

For your first offense, you will be penalized $100. Then, for your second offense, you will be fined $250, as well as be required to take a distracted driving education course. For your third offense, and any additional ones, you will be fined $500. Plus, upon your third offense, any violations of the hands-free law will be considered surchargeable incidents. This means that your insurance company will view the offense just like they do an at-fault car accident or a speeding ticket, and your car insurance premium could increase at renewal.

#3: If you are reporting an emergency situation, you may hold your mobile device.

Please know that in the event of an emergency, violating this new hands-free law is likely not going to get you in any trouble. According to the law, these emergency situations could be anything from reporting a disabled vehicle or accident, requesting medical attention or assistance for yourself or someone else, or asking for police intervention, fire department, or other emergency services. If possible, though, we urge you to pull off the active roadway before picking up your phone.

#4: You are not allowed to read or view text, images, or video displayed on a mobile electronic device – ever.

Since September 2010, when then Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed legislation that prohibited sending, typing, and reading electronic messages on mobile devices while operating a motor vehicle, these behaviors have been illegal even if you are using your cell phone in hands-free mode. You can, however, ask your phone’s personal assistant to read a text to you, which enables you to keep your eyes on the road.

The hands-free law does allow for you to view your car’s navigation system or a map app on your phone. Still, you can’t hold your mobile device while following a route. Instead, your phone must be mounted on or affixed to your vehicle’s windshield, dashboard, or center console in a way that does not impede your driving.

If your vehicle already has Bluetooth or similar technology installed, then you are probably already complying with this new law most, if not all, of the time. Having voice-activated technology built into your vehicle makes talking on the phone and using navigation easy to do hands-free. All you have to do is make sure it is set up correctly.

However, if you have an older model car, Bluetooth may not have been included when you bought it. So, you may need to make a little investment in some handy car gadgets to help you comply with the new law.

There are a number of cell phone mount devices on the market to fit all different types of vehicles. You can choose whether you want your phone affixed to the dashboard, center console, or windshield when driving. You may also want to consider purchasing a Bluetooth speaker, which allows you to make and answer phone calls, stream podcasts or music, and get GPS directions from your mobile device by using voice commands.

Additional helpful tips from Fred C. Church on complying with the new hands-free law

Whatever technology and tools you decide to use to assist with hands-free cell phone use while driving, we wanted to share three more safe driving tips that should help you stay on the right side of this new law:

  • Set up GPS or dial a friend before you start driving. The new hands-free law says that you can no longer manually dial a phone number or enter a GPS location while driving. But, it does allow you to one-touch or swipe your phone once for the purpose of either activating GPS or making or receiving a call.
  • Silence incoming calls and texts while driving. On your iPhone, you can go into settings and enable Do Not Disturb While Driving. If you have an Android, you can download the DriveMode app. When these features are activated, people trying to text or call you while you are driving will receive an automatic response letting them know you are choosing to keep both hands on the wheel and will get back to them later.
  • Simply put your phone away. Perhaps the most surefire way to not get into trouble with the law or, for that matter, get in a distracted driving accident, is to simply shut down your phone while you’re behind the wheel. As the saying goes, “Out of sight, out of mind,” so put your mobile device somewhere that you won’t be tempted to check it. With your phone hidden in your bag or the glove compartment, your brain will have a lot more capacity to focus on the road, other drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

From 2014 to 2016, the number of distracted driving crashes in Massachusetts increased 170 percent even though there have been many attempts by lawmakers, local nonprofits like Safe Roads Alliance, and even phone companies to draw attention to and limit these tragedies. The new hands-free law places the most stringent restrictions to date on what people can do with their phones in their vehicles and reminds people to just drive.

As your risk management resource, we are glad to see this new law pass. It makes a strong statement about the very serious risks involved in trying to multitask while driving. More importantly, it protects people.

The team at Fred C. Church is always here to help you understand the ways that you can better safeguard your family and your assets. If you have questions about your car insurance solution or any other personal insurance coverage needs, please contact us. One of our experienced insurance professionals will be glad to assist you.