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Text messaging ban raises awareness, not citations

Date: 10/25/2010

Oct. 25, 2010

By Katelyn Gendron

Assistant Editor

GREATER SPRINGFIELD -- Effective Sept. 30, law enforcement officers were granted the power to cite motorists for text messaging while driving. However, citations have yet to be issued in many Valley municipalities.

Some police chiefs aren't convinced distracted driving is a serious problem today, however, other agencies such as the United States Department of Transportation, disagree. The department has a division dedicated to traffic safety and distracted driving, while Oprah even got on board this year with her "No Phone Zone" campaign.

"There's not going to be any special task force looking for these types of violations. It's not necessary. It occurs, but whether or not it's an epidemic has yet to be proven," Holyoke Police Chief Anthony Scott said of distracted driving. "If they [legislators] truly, truly, truly want to do something about it, they'll make it illegal to use a phone while driving unless it's hands free."

Holyoke officers have yet to issue a ticket for text messaging while driving, Scott noted.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 5,500 people died and 500,000 were injured in vehicle accidents involving distracted drivers last year. Sixteen percent of traffic fatalities reported in the U.S. in 2009 can be attributed to distracted driving.

Gov. Deval Patrick signed the Safe Driving Bill into law July 2, making Massachusetts the 30th state to ban text messaging while driving. Only eight states ban hand-held cell phone use entirely while operating a vehicle.

Westfield State Rep. Donald Humason Jr., a member of the Safe Driving Conference Committee, explained that legislators could not come to a consensus on requiring hands-free devices and therefore settled on just a text messaging ban.

"I really think that someone will file that legislation banning cell phone use altogether and I wouldn't be surprised if it's [Joint Committee on Transportation] Chair Joseph Wagner," Humason said. Wagner, of Chicopee, proposed the Safe Driving Bill.

As the law stands, those caught text messaging face a $100 fine for the first citation, $250 for the second offense and $500 for each subsequent violation.

The bill also prohibits junior motor vehicle operators from using hand-held cell phones entirely. First-time violators will lose their license for 60 days, receive a $100 fine and be required to complete an attitudinal course. Those committing a second offense will receive a $250 fine and a 180-day suspension of their license. Further violations will result in a $500 fine and loss of license for one year.

East Longmeadow Police Chief Douglas Mellis said his officers are most concerned with junior operators' actions on the road.

"You go by and see a car filled with three or four kids and all of them have phones up to their ears," he said of reports from patrolmen. "We'll take action when we find it."

Mellis noted the department has yet to issue a ticket to a junior operator or for text messaging while driving.

When asked how he advises his officers to enforce the Safe Driving Law, Sgt. John Delaney of the Springfield Police Department replied, "It's at the officer's discretion when they see the violation take place. There's always going to be excuses [from drivers] . people are going to say they were making a phone call. If they're doing it for several minutes and not putting the phone up to their ear, they're most likely texting."

Springfield officers have not issued a ticket relative to the Safe Driving Law, either, Delaney said.

Scott advised officers, "Don't go looking for additional work. If they see it, take action; issue the citation and they can handle it in court."

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