, Newburyport, MA

May 14, 2014

Mass. shouldn't answer when cellphone ban rings

Newburyport Daily News

---- — Let us start by conceding that, for many people, driving and using a cellphone is dangerous. It is safest for people who absolutely must make or receive a phone call while on the road to pull over safely and do so while stopped.

That said, the expansion of laws that prohibit the use of hand-held phones while driving strikes us as overkill.

New Hampshire and Vermont have recently passed laws banning the use of hand-held phones while driving. Connecticut already has prohibited the practice.

New Hampshire’s law was passed by the Legislature and awaits the expected signature of Gov. Maggie Hassan. The law will not take effect until July 1, 2015, to allow for a public education campaign about the hand-held phone ban. The use of phones that incorporate “hands-free” technology will still be permitted.

In Massachusetts, it is illegal for new drivers to use cellphones in a vehicle, but so far, the state has resisted imposing the ban on adults.

Legislators in the Bay State should keep up the resistance. Here’s why.

Proponents of banning hand-held phone use while driving cite any number of statistics that demonstrate the dangers of distracted driving.

In New Hampshire, 27 percent of fatal accidents over the past three years were attributed to distracted drivers. Nationwide, at least one driver reported being distracted in 15 percent to 30 percent of all crashes, the Governors Highway Safety Association reported. In 2009, nationally, 3,331 people were killed in accidents involving a distracted driver, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So far this year, nearly 364,000 crashes nationally involved drivers using cellphones to talk or text, according to the National Safety Council.

“Distracted driving” is a broad term which includes erratic operation of a vehicle from any activity such as tuning a radio, programming a GPS device, eating, rooting around in a glovebox or purse or even just talking to a passenger. Distracted driving or erratic operation already is a ticketable offense. Why single out cellphone use for special consideration?

A more sensible, supportable law would ramp up the fines and enforcement for any type of distracted or erratic driving and leave alone those who are driving safely while using their phones.

It’s clear from the comments of those who support the ban that they care very much about public safety. But they also seem to believe that there is some magic mix of legislation that will bestow upon us a perfect world in which accidents never happen and no one ever dies.

Despite the well-meaning efforts of public-private safety promoting organizations such as the New Hampshire Driving Toward Zero Deaths Coalition, that’s never going to happen.

“This law will prevent them from hurting themselves or somebody else,” State Police Col. Robert Quinn told our reporter.

Cellphones are valuable tools that have changed the way people communicate. Let’s not demonize them by singling out a simple electronic device as the cause of all mayhem on our highways. Instead, let’s enforce existing traffic laws and ticket those who drive erratically and dangerously, whatever the cause. Ultimately, it is the distracted driver who is the danger on the highways, not the cellphone.