Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: Texting behind the wheel a risk not worth taking

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LENOX >> "U Text. U Drive. U Pay."

That's the catchy slogan for a statewide campaign that began Friday and continues for the next three weeks aimed at cracking down on the most lethal form of distracted driving — texting and checking e-mail.

Writing, reading, sending electronic messages or browsing the Internet while driving or stopped in traffic has been against the law in Massachusetts since 2010. Drivers under 18 are not allowed to use phones or other electronic devices at all when behind the wheel, and if they're caught, the first-offense fine is $100, completion of an attitude-adjustment course and a 60-day license suspension.

In general, the law has been widely flouted and enforcement, which is difficult, has been hit or miss.

It's obvious common sense that a motorist jeopardizes personal and public safety by reading or sending a cellphone message while in traffic.

But many people are so addicted to their phones that they risk their own lives, as well as those of their passengers and other drivers. Only an intense enforcement campaign by local police departments as well as state police might make a dent.

The statistics are grim: Nationwide in 2014, distracted driving claimed 3.179 lives and injured 431,000 people. In Massachusetts, the death toll was 184 from 2010 to 2014, 56 of them seniors over 65.

A study by Virginia Tech found that drivers who text take their eyes off the road for at least five seconds — if they're doing 55 mph, that's the same as driving the length of a football field while blindfolded.

According to the National Highway Safety Administration, half of adults say they've been a passenger in a car whose driver was texting, 74 percent of drivers acknowledge using Facebook behind the wheel, while 71 percent of young people admit to having sent a text while driving.

"We don't want people thinking this is just a problem for teens," said Jeff Larason, director of the state's Highway Safety Bureau. "Adults do the vast amount of texting while driving."

The Massachusetts Highway Safety Division has distributed $622,000 in federal grants to fund enforcement efforts in cities and towns through April 29.

In Berkshire County, Pittsfield and Lenox are on the list of 142 communities statewide taking part in the enforcement drive. Massachusetts has 351 cities and towns.

As Larason explained, "eligibility is based on the crash rate in individual cities or towns. Communities that are above a certain rate qualify."

Of the 202 local police departments that qualified, 142 have submitted paperwork, he said.

Enforcement is a challenge, Lenox Police Chief Stephen O'Brien acknowledged. "You have to realize that people who are texting are usually concerned about the text itself and not about who's watching them. With this effort, there will be more police on the road to monitor people texting whether you're actually driving or you're stopped at a light."

From my personal observation, motorists seem unaware that it's also illegal to text while waiting for a light to change or when stuck in traffic.

Police can use unmarked vehicles as part of the crackdown — in some cases, a second officer will watching for violators. The fine is $100 for a first offense, and rises to $500 for a third offense in a one-year period.

Asked how widespread texting behind the wheel appears to be in the local area, O'Brien said: "You can see it's a problem just in your normal travels throughout the day. A lot of people are on the phone, some of them texting. I think it might be more prevalent than we think, and we'll find out through this enforcement."

While this effort is praiseworthy, and I hope it drives home the point about the dangers of distracted driving, the laws are still not strict enough. Drivers over 18 are allowed to talk on a hand-held phone in this state as long as one hand is on the wheel.

Sadly, Massachusetts is not yet among the 14 states and D.C. that prohibit drivers of all ages from using handheld cellphones while driving.

Legislation that would restrict cellphone chatter to hands-free technology has been approved by the state Senate but a similar bill is still tied up in the House Ways & Means Committee.

New York is among the tougher states, barring handheld phone use, including texting, for drivers of all ages. Motorists on the state thruway see signs for "text stops" at frequent intervals. Vermont only bans all cellphone use (handheld and hands-free) for novice drivers and prohibits texting for drivers of all ages.

Sadly, auto manufacturers make it all too easy to pair phones with increasingly complex dashboard technology.

In my view, all cellphone use, including hands-free, should be outlawed for anyone behind the wheel. If an urgent call or text is required, pull off the road. Otherwise, it can and should wait.

But in our obsessively all-connected, all the time electronic culture, common-sense driving is oh so 20th century.

Contact Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com only when not driving.


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