Mass General’s Michael Flaherty, DO, breaks down the new distracted driving law in Massachusetts and encourages parents to talk to their teens.

The new Massachusetts distracted driving prevention law went into effect Feb. 23. Michael Flaherty, DO, a pediatric critical care physician in the MassGeneral Hospital for Children Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and director of the Trauma and Injury Prevention and Outreach Program, works to investigate the effects of health policies and legislation on preventing pediatric injuries. Here, Dr. Flaherty answers some questions on the new law – why it is important and how parents can talk about it with their teenagers.

What is distracted driving?MGHFC

Distracted driving means your attention or focus is taken away from the task of driving and comprises three core types:

  • Visual: When you take your eyes off the road
  • Manual: When you take your hands off the wheel
  • Cognitive: When your mind is not primarily focused on driving
Michael Flaherty, DO
Michael Flaherty, DO

Distracted driving is dangerous and can lead to injury and death. More than 1,000 people are injured daily in crashes involving a distracted driver. While any distraction can endanger the driver and others, texting while driving is especially dangerous as it combines all three types of distraction. Further, it takes the brain approximately 30 seconds to refocus on driving after looking at a mobile phone.

What is the new hands-free law?

The Massachusetts hands-free law prohibits all drivers from all use of their phones, for any reason, including making calls, reading or sending text messages, using social media or typing in directions — even when at a stop light or in traffic. Phones may be used in hands-free mode through Bluetooth or when the phone is mounted to the windshield or dashboard at eye level.

What if I need to use the navigation on my phone, answer the phone or make a call?

Drivers can utilize their mobile device’s voice commands for directions and calls — such  as Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant — which must be enabled to place calls or get directions.

Cars without built-in GPS, Apple CarPlay or Android Auto must be equipped with a phone mount on the dash or windshield for GPS navigation. Drivers must type in their destination and start the directions before driving.

What should parents do?

Drivers under the age of 20 have the highest proportion of distraction-related fatal crashes. Parents need to foster open conversations about the importance of the law and how it works to ensure their own safety and the safety of others. Since 2010 it has been illegal in Massachusetts for any junior operator — drivers under age 18 — to talk on the phone in any way while driving, including hands-free.

Encourage teenage drivers to speak up if they see their peers or others driving distracted just as they would if someone were driving while drunk. Additionally, parents must set good examples by not using their phones while driving.

Key Takeaways:
  1. Set mobile electronic devices to “Do Not Disturb” mode, which prevents notifications from coming through while the user is in a vehicle
  2. Set an example for others. Peers, children and colleagues learn from one another, so we need to make distracted driving unacceptable behavior.
  3. Use the new law as an educational opportunity. Talk with your teenage driver about the dangers of driving while distracted – including using cell phones, eating and manipulating the radio while behind the wheel.

This story was first published in MGH Hotline, a publication for employees and staff of Mass General.