Straus: “We’re Going To Work Very Hard On This”
Warning of a “loophole” in the state law designed to crack down on drivers using handheld cellphones, road safety advocates warned legislators Wednesday that the rising number of motorists recording themselves or livestreaming video behind the wheel may slip under the enforcement radar.
Social media trends and technological advances in recent years have led to a sizable increase in drivers who film on their phones, watch a recording on a streaming platform, or participate in live video chats via Zoom or FaceTime, speakers said at a Transportation Committee hearing.
Sen. Jo Comerford cited a 2021 report from automobile insurance carrier State Farm, in which 22 percent of motorists surveyed said they recorded video while actively driving. That figure more than doubled from 10 percent just five years ago, Comerford said.
A bill Comerford filed (S 2733) would add language into the state’s 2019 distracted driving law to declare that “no operator of a motor vehicle shall record or broadcast video of themselves on a mobile electronic device.”
Existing law already forbids handheld device distractions behind the wheel unless they are placed in hands-free mode. However, Comerford and supporters of her bill said the current statute does not apply clearly enough to certain situations involving video, such as when a driver talks on a video call with a device clipped to the dashboard or films a TikTok with a phone propped up in a cupholder.
“Massachusetts’ strong hands-free driving legislation prohibits drivers from holding any mobile electronic device in one’s hands and bans reading or viewing texts, images or videos displayed on a mobile electronic device, yet the law isn’t explicit yet about recording videos while not actively handling a device while driving,” the Northampton Democrat said.
The proposed legislation exempts some video recordings, such as dashcams, and stresses that drivers still have the right to record in emergency situations such as police interactions as protected by federal law.
State Farm’s survey found that, like other distracting behaviors, younger drivers were considerably more likely to record video while operating a vehicle. About 56 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds and 47 percent of 30- to 39-year-olds in the survey reported filming behind the wheel, compared to just 10 percent of those 65 and older.
Comerford dubbed the bill “Charlie’s Law” in honor of Charlie Braun, a Northampton music teacher who was struck and killed by a vehicle last fall. Braun was bicycling when he was hit by a driver who was allegedly speaking to a friend on FaceTime behind the wheel.
Prosecutors charged the driver, Haley Kelly-Sherette, in November with negligent motor vehicle homicide, failing to stop for a stop sign and use of an electronic device while driving, according to the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
Joan Ringrose Sellers, Braun’s partner, told lawmakers on Wednesday that his death means a “bright light is needlessly gone from our lives.”
“In the aftermath of his death, I became vigilantly aware of other drivers’ cellphone use,” Sellers said. “I witnessed two people FaceTiming and multiple other motorists talking on the phone or just holding their phones in their hands while driving, and this was all within weeks of Charlie’s death. I also became aware I was receiving feeds on my social media platforms filmed by vloggers in moving vehicles.”
Sellers contacted Comerford about her concerns, and the senator crafted a bill aimed at strengthening the law.
“My hope is that any news of this new law will reach into the hearts and minds of Massachusetts drivers and send a message that no one should be engaged with a camera in any capacity while they’re driving,” Sellers said.
MassBike Executive Director Galen Mook said Comerford’s bill would close a “loophole” in the distracted driving law exposed by technological changes in the past few years that made livestreaming and broadcasting video more common.
“As technology and video screen recording becomes more prevalent — it’s even being built into some of the dashboard experiences of automobiles — the Legislature needs to be vigilant to keep the intention of the hands-free cellphone use law relevant,” Mook said.
Transportation Committee Co-chair Rep. William Straus, who helped shepherd the 2019 distracted driving law into effect, said during Wednesday’s hearing that it explicitly forbids watching videos behind the wheel.
“But that doesn’t mean it’s inviolate and unable of being looked at to make sure the appropriate things are covered, and we’re going to do that, I can assure you,” Straus said in response to Sellers’s testimony. “We’re going to work very hard on this.”