Hands-free phone bill seen missing mark on safety

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/01/20/hands-free-phone-bill-seen-missing-mark-on-safety/

BOSTON – Even those supporting legislation that would ban the use of handheld mobile devices while behind the wheel agree that the measure won’t eliminate the scourge of distracted driving.

Up for debate at the State House on Thursday, the bill (S 2093) would harden Massachusetts’ stance against juggling a cell phone or other electronic device while driving. The proposed legislation would only allow the use of hands-free devices when driving. But safety experts say the measure is no cure-all.

Distracted driving has received increasing attention as mobile devices have proliferated. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that 660,000 motorists manipulated cell phones while driving in 2011. In 2013, distracted driving resulted in 3,154 deaths and about 424,000 injuries, the agency reported. But it pointed out that there are many other things or circumstances that create driving distractions, especially passengers in vehicles.

North American motorists’ group AAA has warned of a steady increase in “infotainment systems” supplied with new cars, citing a projected five-fold increase in such systems in new vehicles by 2018 and research that shows the distractions they can create a hazard to safe driving.

“There is a looming public-safety crisis ahead with the future proliferation of these in-vehicle technologies,” AAA leader Robert L. Darbelnet said in 2013. “It’s time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental distractions built into cars, particularly with the common public misperception that hands-free means risk-free.”

But sending text messages and other uses of mobile phones have drawn the bulk of recent scrutiny. As a result, most states have passed laws curbing mobile device use when behind the wheel, particularly texting, which is thought to be extremely distracting. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 46 states have banned texting while driving.

While a 2010 Massachusetts law bans drivers from sending text messages, a co-author of the hands-free bill says it didn’t go far enough.

Calling it a “half-baked law,” state Sen. Mark Montigny, the chamber’s assistant majority leader, told State House News Service last week: “All you have to do is get in the car on any given day, a significant number of people are breaking the law and the law is very difficult to prove without subpoenaing phone records. . . . No one who is tempted to break the law is really all that troubled by the law as written.”

Montigny, a Democrat from New Bedford, helped craft the pending Senate legislation. He didn’t respond to a request for comment.

If passed, his measure could force drivers who don’t have a wireless set up for their cell phones to spend anywhere from $15 to $70 for devices to let them use a phone without having to hold it to an ear. For those with newer cars, it may not matter, as many have Blue Tooth wireless technology integrated with their audio systems. So the immediate costs should the bill pass may disproportionately affect less-affluent drivers.

Enforcing the 2010 Massachusetts law is one of its chief flaws, said Jeff Larason, president of the Safe Roads Alliance in North Andover. Since the law just dealt with texting, a motorist can still use a mobile device and be distracted by it, without running afoul of the law, he said.

The new measure, if passed, would “tell people to take the phone out of their hand. It stops them from texting while driving and other things as well, like using the GPS or playing ‘Words with Friends,’” Larason said, referring to a game designed for cell phones and Global Positioning System software for maps. “Right now, the way the law is written, you could do any number of things and not break the law.”

But it’s not a silver bullet, Larason warned. Motorists could continue making and taking phone calls – albeit using a hands-free system – and those are considered potentially hazardous as well. AAA, for instance, considers talking on the phone while driving to pose a “moderate risk” because of the mental distraction it can present. Listening to the radio, by comparison, is a “minimal risk.”

There are three types of distraction, Larason said: Cognitive, manual and visual. Texting contributes to all three types, hence its greater risk. Chatting on the phone under any circumstances contributes to cognitive distraction.

The legislation “does not have any effect on the cognitive distraction of a phone call. People should be very cognizant, whether its hands-free or just holding the phone, it is problematic,” he said.

Mary Maguire, director of public and government affairs for AAA Southern New England, said her organization agrees.

“We don’t think that hands-free requirements offer a perfect solution,” she said. “That’s because hands-free is not risk-free. The conversation is still a very potent distraction, whether hand-held or hands-free.”

Research suggests that just talking on a phone – or to passengers in a vehicle – can be so distracting as to present a danger to drivers and others around them.

“Vision is the most important sense for safe driving,” the National Safety Council said in a 2012 research report on why hands-free cell phone use while driving can be dangerous. “Yet, drivers using hands-free phones (and those using handheld phones) have a tendency to ‘look at’ but not ‘see’ objects. Estimates indicate that drivers using cell phones look but fail to see up to 50 percent of the information in their driving environment.”

“I see scores of people on the road every day who are reading their phone, holding their phone up to their faces,” Maguire said. “I think people need to readjust their attitude, and I’m including myself. We all need to. When we get behind the wheel the first priority has to be our safety, the safety of our passengers and the safety of everyone else on the roadway.”

Maguire hopes the debate surrounding the legislation as it works through the State House sparks a larger dialogue about driving safety. She isn’t alone in hoping for discussion. Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Highway Loss Data Institute, called for a more expansive examination of distracted driving in 2014.

“To effectively tackle the problem of distracted driving, we need a broader approach that takes into account the many and varied sources of driver distraction,” he said following a pair of studies examining the problem. “Singling out cell phones may lead drivers to disregard the fact that other behaviors that divert their attention from the road are risky, too.”

Those other behaviors include eating, drinking, smoking and talking with passengers.

As for the proposed Massachusetts hands-free bill, the House of Representatives passed a similar measure in November. But it isn’t clear whether Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, supports a ban. Mark Steffen, a Baker spokesman, said only that the governor would “carefully review legislation that comes to his desk.”