By Dave Rogers
---- — NEWBURYPORT — With mobile technology advancing at a seemingly daily basis, motorists more than ever are forgoing traditional handheld cellphones in favor of hands-free technology that presumably makes it easier to pay attention while driving.
But what state police and local law enforcement agencies have been noticing is that more motorists are wearing headphones or earbuds, adding a new distraction while navigating traffic.
With that in mind, the state police, in conjunction with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, has begun a new public safety initiative reminding motorists that it is against the law to be wearing headphones while driving and to keep at least one ear free at all times.
Part of this public awareness effort is the use of the DOT’s electronic signboards along highways and secondary roads. The signs are a simple, efficient and cost-effective way to inform the public on this issue and hopefully effect a change in motorist usage of these devices, according to the state police.
“Some operators have begun to use their headsets to listen to music, audio books and other media while driving. When you use both pieces of a headset, you are closing off one of your vital senses. Your ability to hear what’s going on around you is important. Some dangers while driving are not immediately identified by sight alone and your ability to hear may be your only warning to immediate danger,” a state police official said recently.
Amesbury crime prevention police officer Thomas Hanshaw said the rise of headphone use has made it harder for officers to safely respond to emergency calls. When a motorist listens to loud music on headphones, it can be impossible to hear the sirens of a fast-approaching ambulance, fire engine or police cruiser.
Such was the case a few years ago when Hanshaw said he was delayed in responding to a call because a young motorist listening to loud music wouldn’t pull over to the side of the road. Eventually, Hanshaw said, the motorist saw his cruiser’s blues lights in his rearview mirror.
Had he not been responding to an emergency call, Hanshaw said he would have pulled the driver over and charged him with impeded driving, the officer said.
“It’s a huge impediment and that’s what the charge is,” Hanshaw said.
Newburyport police Lt. Rick Siemasko echoed Hanshaw’s concerns, but added the problem also applies to those playing their car radios too loudly.
“They’re not in the moment, that’s the biggest problem we’ve seen,” Siemasko said.
First responders, including law enforcement and fire and rescue crews, use their emergency lights and sirens to safely navigate the roadways when responding to emergencies. During the day, flashing emergency lights may not be seen as easily as at night, and the only way for an operator to be warned of the emergency vehicle is from a siren, according to the state police.
Siemasko said he appreciated the state police and DOT’s push toward improving safety on the roads.
“Anything that addresses distracted driving is important,” Siemasko said.
Additionally, vehicles registered in Massachusetts are required to get a safety inspection and part of that inspection requires the horn to be in good working order. The horn, when properly used, is a safety signal device used to warn operators of possible collisions and hazards posed from other vehicles or objects in the roadway. Wearing headphones removes the effectiveness of those warnings, further leaving a driver oblivious to a dangerous situation.
“Frankly, there is no legitimate reason for an operator to be wearing both headphones while driving. The campaign is to inform the public that wearing both headphones or ‘ear buds’ is unnecessary and unlawful. This is a primary offense allowing police to stop and cite motorists when they’re observed to be wearing both pieces in their ears while operating a motor vehicle,” a state police official said.