Investigation finds Mass. texting and driving ban ineffective

By: Mike Beaudet

Updated:
Contributors: Audrey Adam, Julia Aparicio, Kelsey Bruun, Angel Feliciano, Alexis Herrera, Elijah Kaplan, Cameron Machell, Jessica McWeeney


(MyFoxBoston.com) -- Amanda Martin traveled the same road to school every day, leaving her home in Southbridge for the 15 minute drive to Bay Path Regional Vocational Technical School in Charlton. But the typical morning routine ended in an instant when the 17-year-old senior lost control of her car and hit a tree in October 2007, a crash her mother believes was preventable.

“She made a mistake,” said Melissa Martin. “And I just want to make sure other people know not to make that mistake because it's a deadly mistake and it's something you can't come back from.”

Amanda Martin received a text message just three minutes before the crash was reported to police at 7:25 a.m. on Oct. 17, 2007, leaving her family to conclude that texting was the cause of the collision.

Three years later, Massachusetts banned texting while driving and banned junior operators like Amanda from even talking on a cell phone while behind the wheel. 

But an investigation by FOX25 and Northeastern University's School of Journalism found enforcement of the law is limited and ineffective. 

Unlike 14 other states, Massachusetts does not have a ban on hand-held cellphone use, making it difficult for law enforcement to effectively crack down on texting while driving because officers cannot always distinguish whether someone is texting, or simply dialing a phone number. 

The inability to enforce the ban is not only putting lives at risk, but also causing the state to lose out on millions of dollars in federal funding.

The strength of laws across the United States prohibiting cellphone use while driving varies by state. 

Like Massachusetts, 43 other states have similar laws that ban texting while driving, but drivers are still allowed to dial and hold their cellphones. There are 14 states and Washington, DC that go further, banning all hand-held cell phone use while driving. In many states, 38 including Massachusetts and Washington, DC, the toughest restrictions are only placed on young drivers who are not allowed to use cellphones behind the wheel.

“States that ban the use of hand-held devices are certainly more effective, simply because they can enforce the behavior,” said Kara Macek, communications director for the Governors Highway Safety Association. 

The GHSA is calling on all states to enact hand-held cell phone use bans to increase public safety.

“I think the main reason that there's resistance to banning hand-held cell phone use while driving is because it's culturally acceptable and everyone does it,” Macek said. “We've come to a point where drunk driving is not culturally acceptable. We know it's not okay.”

The GHSA considers Connecticut, where drivers can only use hands-free devices behind the wheel, a model for its efforts. Connecticut, a state with about half the population of Massachusetts, gives out more tickets in a single year than Massachusetts has issued since its law went into effect. 

Massachusetts has issued 11,234 violations since 2010, compared to Connecticut's 15,627 in 2014 alone.

“The way that the law is written, that if there's a phone in your hand, you're operating a motor vehicle, you're in violation of the state statute,” said Aaron Swanson, the Connecticut Highway Safety Office's distracted driving program manager. “Our legislators have done a good job of kind of seeing what's coming and writing a law so that it's flexible enough that law enforcement can do their job.

Connecticut's work to eradicate cell phone use among drivers has qualified the state for a federal distracted driving prevention grant. The state was awarded $2.3 million in 2014. No other state, including Massachusetts, qualified for this grant in the past fiscal year.

While Swanson believes Connecticut's roads are safer, it is difficult for any state to measure how many lives may be saved by strict laws. It is also tough to pinpoint how many crashes are caused by texting and driving. 

States use different methods for collecting data, raising questions about whether crashes caused by texting are going unreported. For example, Massachusetts, with a population of about 6.7 million, found that cell phone use led to only 39 crashes in 2013. During the same year, Vermont, a state of approximately 600,000 people, reported that distracted driving by texting caused 485 crashes.

State Representative Cory Atkins, D-Concord, would like to see Massachusetts address cell phone use while driving the same way as Connecticut.

“If I'm standing at a cross light with my grandchildren holding their hands and you're driving through texting and you lose control and hit one of us or hit all of us,” said Atkins. “Don't you think the government has a place in that interaction?”

The Massachusetts legislature, however, has been slow to address a ban on hand-held cellphone use. A bill prohibiting it has been proposed several times, and even passed the House, but failed to win enough support in the Senate. This past legislative session, a bill that would crack down on phone use died in committee.

State Senator Thomas McGee, D-Lynn, Senate Chair of the Joint Transportation Committee said there were concerns about the availability and cost of hands-free devices when the ban was first proposed in 2010.

“There's always the opposition every time you put more regulations in place and there's another reason for the police to make a stop,” McGee, who supports the hand-held cellphone ban, said. 

He believes it could move forward this year. 

“You're talking about safety here, so I haven't heard any strong opposition as to why we shouldn't do this.”

Melissa Martin is hopeful a new governor will help usher what she believes is a long-overdue change.

“Phones aren't a toy,” she said. “They can be a deadly device.”

For more information on texting and driving:

How does Massachusetts compare to other states?

Official US Government Website on Distracted Driving

Watch “From One Second To The Next” Documentary

This investigation was reported on for a seminar in investigative reporting at Northeastern University. It was overseen by journalism professor Mike Beaudet, investigative reporter at WFXT-TV FOX25 News.

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