Consequences of Using Your Cell Phone While Driving in Massachusetts

In February 2020, Massachusetts took a bold stand against cell phone use while driving. Massachusetts now prohibits any use of a cell phone while driving unless the hands-free mode is activated.

This statute imposes criminal penalties on violators. Violation of this statute can also constitute evidence of negligence in a car accident involving cell phone use.

Here are some consequences that can arise from the use of a cell phone while driving in Massachusetts.

Criminal Liability for Cell Phone Use While Driving

Massachusetts has many criminal laws that could impose fines and even jail time for cell phone use while driving.

Hands-Free Operation

Under the hands-free law in Massachusetts, drivers cannot use a handheld cell phone or tablet for any purpose. 

This means that you can be cited for:

  • Holding your cell phone while you drive.
  • Talking and driving without activating the hands-free mode.
  • Texting and driving without using talk-to-text.
  • Reading or watching videos while driving.
  • Using a cell phone for any purpose while driving (including hands-free mode) for drivers under 18.

The statute allows emergency use of cell phones, such as calling 911, while driving. The statute also allows the use of navigation apps if the phone is mounted to the dashboard, windshield, or center console.

The hands-free law does not impose jail time for violators. Moreover, the law does not allow law enforcement to seize a cell phone or tablet from violators.

Instead, violators are cited and must pay a fine. The penalty for violating the hands-free law is a fine of $100 for a first offense, $250 for a second offense, and $500 for a third or subsequent offense. The law also requires violators to complete a distracted driving course for a second or subsequent offense.

Reckless Operation

Massachusetts prohibits reckless operation of a vehicle. Reckless operation can include any action that endangers the lives or safety of the public. The statute does not specifically identify cell phone use as reckless. But a driver can violate the law if cell phone use causes a driver to pose a danger to the public.

For example, suppose a driver runs over the curb and onto a sidewalk while texting and driving. That driver could be arrested for reckless operation even if no pedestrians are injured.

Reckless operation is a serious offense. Punishment for a first offense includes a fine of up to $500, incarceration of up to two years, or both.

Homicide by Motor Vehicle

If reckless operation leads to the death of another, the state can charge the driver with homicide. Again, the law does not specifically reference cell phone use. But cell phone use can lead to reckless operation that results in death.

Thus, suppose a driver distracted by cell phone use runs a stoplight and strikes another vehicle. The state could charge the driver with reckless operation if no one dies. But if someone dies, those charges could be increased to homicide by motor vehicle.

Punishment for homicide by motor vehicle can include up to five years in jail or prison, a fine up to $3,000, or both.

Civil Liability for Cell Phone Use While Driving

Separate from possible criminal charges, a driver who causes an accident due to cell phone use could be liable for injuries and property damage resulting from the accident.

Massachusetts uses a no-fault liability insurance system. This places responsibility for auto accident claims on each driver’s insurer regardless of fault.

But if the auto insurance policies do not cover all the medical bills and other damages from the accident, anyone injured in the accident can file a lawsuit against the driver who caused the crash. Cell phone use can determine the allocation of fault among drivers.

Negligence Arising from Cell Phone Use

Fault for an accident depends on each driver’s degree of negligence. Negligence occurs when a driver fails to meet the reasonable standard of care expected of drivers. Speeding, improper lookout, distracted driving, and other unsafe behaviors can form the basis of a negligence claim.

Unlike other states, Massachusetts does not follow the doctrine of negligence, per se. Under this doctrine, violation of safety laws constitutes negligence. Thus, in other states, violating laws against cell phone use while driving would relieve an injured person of having to prove negligence.

By contrast, in Massachusetts, violation of safety laws is not presumed to constitute negligence. Rather, violation of safety laws is merely evidence of negligence. A jury can weigh a violation of the hands-free law when it decides if the driver was negligent.

But science suggests that cell phone use while driving is highly dangerous. A vehicle traveling at 35 miles per hour covers over 100 feet during a two-second glance at a text message.

Moreover, society has established norms against texting and calling while driving. Forty-eight states prohibit texting while driving, while 22 states require hands-free use of phones while driving.

These facts could support a jury finding that a driver acted negligently by using a cell phone at the time of an accident.

Comparative Negligence from Cell Phone Use

Cell phone use might also play a part in allocating fault in an accident. Massachusetts law uses a modified comparative negligence law with a 51% bar to recovery. If an injured driver was negligent, even though the driver did not cause the accident, the driver’s compensation is reduced by the driver’s contribution to the accident.

For example, suppose a driver makes a left-hand turn in front of an oncoming vehicle. If the driver of the oncoming vehicle reacted slowly because of cell phone use, the driver might be allocated 30% of the fault for the accident. This allocation reduces the driver’s compensation by 30%.

Damages are prohibited if a victim is assigned more than 50% of the blame.

Follow Massachusetts Law to Avoid the Consequences of Cell Phone Use

The new hands-free law is intended to keep Massachusetts drivers safe. By following the law, drivers can minimize both their criminal and civil liability for cell phone use while driving. But most importantly, minimizing cell phone use while driving and using the hands-free features of the cell phone can reduce the chances of getting into a car accident.

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