Rhode Island’s new hands free law has forced some motorists to make adjustments in their driving habits - and has the state’s police chiefs association considering asking the General Assembly to make adjustments to the law. A mandatory hearing at traffic court for those who receive a ticket could be costly for local departments having to pay officers overtime to attend contested hearings. This week Jim Hummel talks with law enforcement and some drivers to see how they’re dealing with the new law.
You can’t say you weren’t warned.
Along the highways.
And the byways
And on the airwaves - the messages have seemingly been everywhere.
No holding a cell phone while driving beginning June 1st - a year after the General Assembly finally passed a law that was first introduced a decade ago.
Mendonca: ``People are really tethered to their phone right now and I think a lot of people would have a difficult time putting it down. I think it would have been wrong for us to have some type of enforcement efforts without having the education first.”
Central Falls Police Chief James Mendonca is also the head of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, which ran an advertising campaign leading up to the launch.
Mendonca: ``I think everyone’s in favor of it, they’re just having a very difficult time complying because they’re so used to having that phone, it’s almost part of their anatomy.”
The Hummel Report found many drivers already have Bluetooth. Others have changed their habits in direct response to the law. And others are still using their phones while driving.
Hummel: ``Are you equipped?”
Niles: ``I am, that was the first thing I did when I saw the law was going into effect, was get one of these headsets. So I’ve got the Bluetooth that is active whenever I want it to be.”
Hummel: “You didn’t have that before, though?”
Niles: ``I did not.”
Hummel: “So the law prompted you to go out and get it?”
Niles: “It did, but I probably would have done it sooner or later anyway. I’ve always thought it was a good idea, and I have had my own frustrations about being in traffic behind people that are on their cell phones.”
Hummel: ``Do you use your phone a lot in the car?”
Quartino: “More than I probably should. I don’t like to, but life goes on unfortunately. Right before the law went into effect I bought a little clip for the dashboard, there’s a little metal ring on the back and it basically just magnetic mounts to where the CD player is. So now if I get a phone call I can just answer it, hit the button, stay hands free and I’m up and running.”
And then there’s Kevin O’Grady who has used the new law as an excuse not to talk at all when driving.
O’Grady: “I’m the one who will get pulled over as soon as I pick it up, I have that kind of luck. So I just put the phone down, turn it over, turn the volume down. It’s a half hour ride to me so I don’t need it.”
Hummel: ``Do you like that? Is it kind of nice to have the silence.”
O’Grady: “I get to listen to the radio uninterrupted, sure.”
The same goes for Sid Wordell, the retired chief in Little Compton who is now the executive director of the police chiefs association.
Wordell: “I’m on my phone too much through the day and I’ve said I’m not going to pick up my phone, I’m going to leave it. I do have the Bluetooth, but it can wait, right? We’re in a time of instant gratification, we think we have to answer to people, we think we need to talk to everybody, we don’t. So it’s an opportunity to say: just put the phone down, let it wait, enjoy your drive, and pay attention because safety is really the big issue.”
While the chiefs association pushed hard for the law to be passed the organization will likely go back to the General Assembly next year to ask for an amendment to the legislation. The law now calls for a mandatory hearing at the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal for anyone who is ticketed for a hands-free violation - meaning that person has to take time out of work and law enforcement officers will have to go in on overtime if a ticket is contested.
Hummel: ``If you’re a Traffic Tribunal judge and law enforcement doesn’t show up on the hearing date, is that grounds for automatic dismissal?”
Wordell: “It is, I mean it always has been in the past.”
Mendonca: “It is a burden financially on the agency. I think many of us within the police chiefs association would like to see it eventually become a pay-by-mail violation. And have concurrent jurisdiction - not just exclusive jurisdiction - with the (Traffic Tribunal).
Wordell: ``I think we will look for an opportunity to discuss that with them. Maybe it doesn’t have to go to even the Traffic Tribunal. There are departments that have municipal courts. Maybe it’s able to go there. Maybe we set the fine because right now it’s up to $100, so it’s really up the court what they decide to do with that.”
Chief Mendonca is leading by example in Central Falls, strengthening a phone use policy for officers.
Mendonca: “ It forbids any member of the department, myself included all the way down the chain of command, from driving a motor vehicle unless there’s a hands-free device. So we can talk as long as there’s Bluetooth and the phone’s in the cradle and we’re not actually touching it.”
Even though the law carves out an exception for law enforcement.
Mendonca: “We don’t want to be that agency that might be caught by you, or somebody else driving down the street with the phone in their hand having routine conversation. The optics of that would be terrible.
Wordell: “Sitting as a chief for 10 years as I did, the last thing you want to have to deal with is a public relations issue. If the public can’t drive and be talking on the phone, why should anybody else have that opportunity?”
Hummel: “Has this law changed your behavior”
Wordell: “It has. And I think I’ve used it as an opportunity to not answer the phone just because somebody’s calling me so I have to answer it. Remember the days of not having a cell phone. You said you were going to be there in an hour, you get there in a hour and you talk to somebody then.”
Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.