NEWBURYPORT — This week, local police will start enforcing a new law that takes aim at motorists — many of them teens or young adults — who type messages onto their cell phones while driving.
Starting tomorrow, it will be against the law in Massachusetts to text while driving, as the state's Safe Driving Law goes into effect.
In addition to making it illegal to send or read text messages while driving, the Safe Driving Law prohibits the use of a mobile phone or electronic device by anyone considered a junior operator — generally, drivers who are younger than 18. Motorists 75 years and older will also be required to pass a vision test before their licenses are renewed.
Motorists caught texting, sending or reading e-mails or searching the Internet can receive a $35 fine for a first offense and up to a $150 fine if cited three times within a year.
Junior operators face much stiffer penalties, including a $100 fine, 60-day license suspension and attending an "attitudinal course" for a first offense. The law should also trigger more license suspensions at a quicker pace by repealing the current suspension for anyone who receives five "surchargable incidents" in a three-year period and replacing it with three surchargable incidents over a two-year period.
The Safe Driving Law is considered a primary offense, meaning police can pull someone over if they see someone texting.
In Newburyport, police will be placing two electronic message boards at strategic locations to remind motorists of the new law.
Newburyport Marshal Thomas Howard said one sign will be placed in the downtown area; the other, on High Street near Newburyport High School.
Howard said placing a sign by the high school is meant to catch the attention of junior operators who make up a large percentage of those who use a mobile phone while driving. Hopefully, the law will improve their driving skills and minimize their distractions, he added.
"They're going to have a huge adjustment," Howard said.
Howard said he will extend a grace period of two days for junior operators before imposing the new law to give them extra time to adjust.
The most common junior operator violation currently is driving with a passenger, which is illegal for the first six months after receiving a license. But Howard said he expects the Safe Driving Law to generate more violations.
"I don't think that's (driving with passengers) going to hold a candle to the number of violations we see from junior operators," Howard said.
It will also be a period of adjustment for older drivers who are accustomed to texting or surfing the Web while stopped at a red light. Under the new law, motorists must pull over to the side of the road or into a parking lot before using a cell phone in ways other than talking.
Howard said he is hoping the new law lowers the blood pressure of drivers who can become agitated, even violent when driving behind a distracted driver. Drivers using a cell phone often slow down, stop suddenly or lose track of traffic signals, behavior that often aggravates other drivers. Howard said there's a direct correlation between road rage incidents and cell phone use.
"The whole intent is to make the public aware because we don't want to see violations, we want people to comply with the statute," Howard said.
The Safe Driving Law becomes effective in Massachusetts on Sept. 30. The law creates a series of new violations, including:
Use of a Mobile Phone by a Junior Operator
1st offense - $100 fine, 60-day license suspension and attitudinal course
2nd offense - $250 fine, 180-day suspension
3rd or subsequent offense - $500 fine, 1-year suspension
$100 reinstatement fee for any suspension
Knowledge and road test required for reinstatement
Sending/Reading Text Messages
1st offense - $100 fine
2nd offense - $250 fine
3rd or subsequent offense - $500 fine