New Massachusetts hands-free driving law to go into effect in February 2020


closup of sterring wheel and woman's hands holding a cell phone
You might have been distracted over Thanksgiving and missed the news: Massachusetts enacted a hands-free driving law, making Massachusetts the 21st state to ban the use of all hand-held electronic devices while driving. This follows quickly on a similar Maine law which went into effect in September. Other neighboring states — Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island — also have hands-free driving laws on the books.

The new Massachusetts law bans any hand-held device while driving motor vehicles and bicycles. There are limited exceptions to allow for emergency reporting provisions. The law will take effect until Sunday, February 23, 2020, 90-days after the law was enacted. For about the first month, first-time violators will be issued warnings, but after that, fines will apply.

In Massachusetts Has A Hands-Free Driving Law: Four Items Everyone Needs To Know, Agency Checklists offers more details on the law, including penalties for violation:

According to the terms laid out in the new Bill, a first-time violation with result in a $100 fine, a second offense will be a $250 fine, followed by a $500 fine for a third or subsequent offense. While a first or second offense is not categorized as a “surchargeable incident” under the statute, a third or subsequent office will be considered as such.

For more on the new law, see What You Need To Know About The New Distracted Driving Law In Mass.

Hands-free driving laws in the Northeast

Maine’s Hands-free Driving Law went into effect on September 19, 2019. It prohibits the use of mobile telephones, handheld electronic devices and portable electronic devices while operating a motor vehicle, unless specifically exempted by law. Violations will be subject to no less than a $50 fine for the first offense and not less than $250 for a second or subsequent offense. The Chief Judge set the fine amount of $230.00 for a first offense and $325.00 for a second and subsequent offense.

New York state has been on the forefront of the distracted driving issue since enacting the nation’s first statewide handheld phone law, which took effect in November 2001.

Connecticut has had hands-free driving laws since 2005, prohibiting the use of any hand-held mobile electronic device while operating a motor vehicle. Penalties range from $150 for first-time offenders to $500 for a third offense. Drivers may also be subject to demerit points on their driving record.

New Hampshire has had a hands-free driving law since 2015, prohibiting all motorists from using a handheld cellphone or other device to text message or talk while driving.

Rhode Island’s hands-free driving law went into effect on June 1, 2018. Drivers cannot hold a cell phone or other wireless device while operating a vehicle. The use of headphones or other accessories that cover both ears also is not allowed.

For laws in other states, the Governors Highway Safety Association offers a listing of Distracted Driving Laws by state (but note that most recent developments such as the MA law may not yet be reflected)

Thanksgiving on the road: best driving times & tips


illustration woamn driving with turkey tied ot the roof of her car

Will your Thanksgiving festivities entail traveling 50 miles or more? If so, you’ll be joining 55 million other folks, according to AAA, who predicts this will be the second-highest Thanksgiving travel volume since they began tracking in 2000, trailing only the record set in 2005. That’s up by about a million over last year. Of those travelers, 49.3 will be motorists.

If you will be driving to your destination, try to get your car checked now. Be sure to check windshield wipers and fluid, tire pressure and oil and gas levels. AAA predicts they will respond to 368,000+ calls for roadside assistance over the holiday, with the top three reasons being dead batteries, flat tires and lockouts. In addition to car maintenance, Gas Buddy will help you find the best gas prices wherever you are – and you can plan out expenses in advance using their Trip Cost Calculator. If you will be driving in states beyond your home state, brush up on traffic laws with the AAA Digest of Motorist Laws. This handy tool covers everything: headline use, distracted and impaired driving laws, accident reporting and more.

Best times for Thanksgiving road travel

If you’ll be on the road, AAA says that in the Boston metro area, avoid traveling between 4:30-6:30 PM. Google offers tools that might help you avoid the worst traffic times. Below, see the heaviest times mapped for major metro areas (click above link for larger). You can also use their calculator for avoiding traffic – enter the major metro departure city for various days to see predicted traffic patterns based on prior years.

chart illustrating worst traffic over Thanksgiving weekend
Here are some other safe Thanksgiving traveling tips:

 

Last-Minute Halloween Liability Issues


costumed kids trick or treating

Halloween is scary enough, we don’t mean to add to your fright, but if you are a homeowner or an apartment dweller, there are some safety precautions you should take to greet the little ghosts and goblins who will be ringing your bell or roaming the streets.

A few years ago, Christopher Boggs wrote a great Guide to Homeowners Liability for Injury to Trick or Treaters. He notes:

When the porch light is on, trick-or-treaters are considered invitees; the homeowner is inviting them onto the property (though not for a mutual benefit). Because of this relationship, the homeowner owes the candy seekers the level of “reasonable” care that falls under Ordinary Negligence.

Now anytime you have anyone visit your home, they could suffer an injury or an accident – that’s why you have insurance. But on Halloween, a steady stream of small feet traipsing across your porch in the dark increases the risk. Plus, you are giving out food.

Here are some tips to minimize Halloween hazards and reduce your risk.

  • Keep porches and walkways well-lit and free of debris and clutter that might be tripping hazards
  • Put reflective tape on your steps and along your walkway
  • When decorating, avoid candles – use LED lights and battery-powered lights instead.
  • Keep pets away from kids to avoid bites, scares or allergic reactions. Even friendly pets can be overexcited or upset by the unusual activity and may be skittish or overly protective.
  • Avoid mystery treats. Distribute labeled treats and tell parents what they are and if they contain nuts.
  • Provide alternative allergy-free treats – consider small non-food trinkets.
  • Be cautious about any spooky pranks for kids or guests – make sure they are safe and not too scary to young children.
  • If you are hosting an adult party, you have particular responsibility to take care in the serving of alcoholic beverages. See our post on holiday parties and liability issues.
  • If you are driving any time on Halloween, be super cautious. Little monsters may be out at any hour and frequenting normally quiet neighborhoods. Be particularly cautious at dusk an early evening.

Protect your home and car too!

Halloween is a huge night for vandalism. Here are a few tips to protect your property from fire, theft and vandalism.

    • Don’t overload electrical circuits with lights.
    • Paper and dried plant decorations can easily ignite. Keep them away from flames, lights, and electrical cords.
    • Lock up bicycles, gas grills and other outdoor valuables.
    • Park your car in a garage, if possible. Mischief makers may egg your house or car.
    • If you don’t have shelter for your car, consider stopping at the car wash for a coat of wax that may offer some protection.
    • If you are out trick or treating with your kids or partying with your peers, make your home looks occupied. Leave lights and the TV on.
    • Doorbell cams and motion activated lights can offer added protection.
    • If your car or home is egged, deal with it right away that night or in the morning before damage can set in. See How to Remove Egg Stains From Your Car’s Paint Job and 4 Ways to Wash Egg off your home

    Call your agent

    If you should suffer any damage to your property or have any accidents during Halloween weekend, file a claim as soon as possible to get the claim process in motion. Be ready with the details of where and when the event occurred, along with the names and addresses of any injured parties or witnesses to the event. If there is damage to your property, report it to the police, take photos, and record the details so you won’t forget them later.

How to avoid rogue tow truck scams


couple watching their car loaded on a tow truck

Bad enough if you are in an auto accident – that’s stressful enough. You might be injured or at the very least, shaken up. Suddenly a tow truck appears on the scene saying they are from your insurance company. While that might seem like lucky timing, it should actually raise your suspicions. High pressure tactics from rogue tow truck operators can lead to exorbitant towing and storage fees or your car being taken to a body shop that is in league with the tower. The National Insurance Crime Bureau recently released a public service announcement to raise awareness about rogue tow truck operators and how to avoid becoming a victim.

NCIB offers these tips:

  • Never give permission to a tow truck operator who arrives unsolicited to take your vehicle.
  • If you or law enforcement did not call a tow truck to the scene, do not deal with that operator.
  • Do not provide tow truck operators with your insurance information.
  • Do not provide tow truck operators with personal lien holder information.
  • Determine that the tow truck signage is identical to what appears on any documentation the tow truck operator provides (they may say they “work with” your insurance company).
  • If the tow truck does not display signage identifying the name of the tow company, ask for company identification.
  • If a tow operator’s legitimacy is in doubt, call the police.
  • Do not give a tow truck operator permission to tow your vehicle until they:
    –Provide a printed price list, to include daily storage fees and miscellaneous charges that will apply if they tow your car (if the prices seem too high, ask the police or your insurance company to call a towing service for you).
    –Provide printed documentation indicating where the vehicle is being towed if it is not a location of your choosing.

The Coalition Against Insurance Fraud offers more information on tow truck cons and scams, as well as extensive tips to for what to expect and what your rights are.

Check out the full article but here are a few tips from their list:

Think ahead: Join an emergency road service club or organization such as AAA. Also know your auto insurer’s roadside assistance program, with the tollfree number printed on your insurance card. They’ll set you up with reputable towing firms and repair shops.

Photos. Take a photo of the scene, including the tow truck. Use your cell phone or a disposable camera stored in your glove compartment.

Complain. File complaints if you’re scammed. Contact your insurer, state insurance department, local Better Business Bureau and the police.

Know your rights. State laws protect you if your vehicle is towed while you were away, such as while shopping. Confirm and complain if you suspect violations of these rules in most states:

  • The property owner or manager of a business that had your vehicle towed must be at the scene and sign the towing authorization in most states;
  • The operator must leave a small sign at the scene. It should have the firm’s name, address, phone, reason for towing, and who requested the tow;
  • Towing firms must take a photo of your vehicle in the “illegal” spot and notify the local police department to ensure the car is not classified as stolen. Get the photos from the towing firm (though expect a fee); and
  • The towing operator must release your vehicle if you will not or cannot pay the requested towing free. This is true in most states, and then becomes a matter for civil courts.

When will you be driving a robotic car? Take an interactive online trip


illustration of a driverless car

Whatever you call them – robot cars, driverless cars, autonomous vehicles, self-driving cars – they are definitely in your future. But the question is, how far in your future?

They’re being tested already – more than 1,400 self-driving vehicles are operating in 36 states right now. Most states, but not all, require a backup driver.

Take an interactive urban trip as the backup driver in the Washington Post’s autonomous (self-driving) car simulation. It offers an interesting perspective on  the strengths and weaknesses in the way these cars work and how they interact with the environment around them. The Post invites you to sit in the passenger seat and play the role as the backup driver. And that’s an important role because the cars may miss some hazards and they can’t operate in certain weather conditions that interfere with their sensors, causing them to pull over suddenly and shut down entirely.

This interactive  feature is a fun way to learn more about how the cars work and their limitations. You can learn more about some of the system’s weaknesses in article in Insurance Journal by Alan Levin and Ryan Beene: Automated Driver Assist Cars Still a Work in Progress:

The radars and cameras used to sense obstructions ahead each have their limitations and computer software that evaluates the data is still a work in progress, according to the experts and advocates. In many cases, they are better at tracking moving vehicles ahead than recognizing parked ones.

But there are definite pluses, too:

To be sure, automated driving systems have clear potential to improve traffic safety by supplementing the driver. Automatic emergency braking alone has been found by IIHS to reduce rates of rear-end crashes by half, and the insurer-funded group estimates that the system could reduce police-reported crashes of all types by 20%.

Many autonomous or self-driving features are already making their way into our new cars now. These are generally referred to as advanced driver assistance systems. See 7 Self-Driving Car Features You Can Buy Now (and Some You May Already Have) from Autotrader. And cars.com breaks down self-driving features by car make.

But event these new tech features have a ways to go before they are up to par and winning driver acceptance. A recent survey by JD Power showed that many driver-assist features are seen as annoyances;

J.D. Power’s 2019 U.S. Tech Experience Index Study, published today, surveyed more than 20,000 consumers earlier this year, most of whom purchased or leased a model-year 2019 vehicle during the previous 90 days. Nearly a quarter of the group found alerts “annoying or bothersome” from systems that mitigate lane departure or actively center the vehicle, the study said. Such alerts range from hands-on-the-wheel warnings to lane departure chimes. For those who find them annoying, more than half said they sometimes disable the systems; among those who weren’t annoyed, only one-fifth or so indicated the same.

Some of the complaints can be chalked up to drivers being unfamiliar with the technology and uncertain about how it operates, so presumably we’ll all get more comfortable with things as we grow familiar with them.

So it’s not likely you’ll be able to read the latest best sellers while lounging in the back seat of your robot car on your upcoming commutes. But on the other hand, sophisticated technologies are leading to safer cars and fewer accidents – a big win for us all!