For restless thumbs, a necessary discipline

By Megan Woolhouse and Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / July 3, 2010

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Chantal Boxer wanted someone — anyone — to help her kick the habit.

A personal concierge who is often on the road, she uses her BlackBerry to text and e-mail clients, friends, and associates from behind the wheel of her sport utility vehicle. She knows she’s just one LOL away from a crash.

Now help is on the way. Yesterday, the governor stepped in, signing a law that bans texting while driving.

“I am definitely an offender,’’ said Boxer, 34. “I’ll tell you, this new law is going to change my life.’’

The new law, which takes effect in October, could force painful changes for many. The constant checking, the inability to look away from an iPhone, and the aching thumbs represent more than a guilty indulgence; the phones are an increasingly necessary lifeline to work and family. It seems like everyone, from teenagers to college presidents, is tethered to the devices, using an idle minute at a red traffic light as an opportunity to check e-mail or tap out a text message.

Trish Karter, cofounder of Dancing Deer Baking Co. said she tried to go “cold turkey’’ from her cellphone. A self-described BlackBerry addict, she said she successfully cut back this year although she occasionally finds herself slipping. She welcomes the new law.

“It’s a relief,’’ Karter said. “I want to stop myself.’’

Talking on a cellphone while driving remains legal for those over 18, but under the new rule, texting, e-mailing, Internet searching, and other noncalling activity is forbidden, including those seemingly harmless stoplight phone checks. Texting scofflaws can be pulled over by police and fined $100 or more.

It’s a tough turn for those with a texting habit, but will the intervention be successful? According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, 1 in 4, or 27 percent, of American adults admitted to texting while driving in a recent nationwide survey, the same percentage in a similar study of teenagers.

Powerful voices as varied as the National Safety Council and television talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey have condemned distracted driving, yet the problem persists. John M. Collins, general counsel of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, expressed concern that the problem may already be too rampant for police alone to control.

“It’s going to be a while before we know what the real impact of this is,’’ Collins said of the law. “It’s just like swatting mosquitoes: There’s too many of them and we can’t do it alone.’’

Of a half-dozen people interviewed in downtown Boston yesterday, three had witnessed or been involved in accidents while using a cellphone.

Twenty-three year old Kate Ostreicher got into a fender-bender while texting and turning down the radio when she was 17. To teach her a lesson, her parents refused to fix the damaged car for a year, making her drive it around with duct tape.

She said she is expected to be reachable at any time for her job as an assistant to a chief executive and can understand how tempting it would be.

“It’s definitely dangerous,’’ she acknowledged. “At the same time, I can’t say I wouldn’t do it myself.’’

Grace Roessler, a student at New England School of Law, welcomed the prohibition.

“I’m all about the texting ban,’’ said Roessler, 24.

She once got into an accident while talking on her cellphone. She said her boyfriend was breaking up with her, and she failed to notice that a stop sign at a familiar intersection had been replaced with a traffic light.

Though the accident was minor and caused no damage, she said, she felt embarrassed by how distracting a conversation can be, let alone a text message that requires taking one’s eyes off the road. With hope, she said, the new law will at least reduce the risky behavior.

David Goff, 41, a teacher at Belmont High School, said he also welcomed the new law, even though he admitted to occasional text messaging while driving — and not just at red lights.

His self-imposed rule until now? No texting while on Storrow Drive.

“Anything that focuses drivers more on the road is probably a better thing for safety reasons,’’ Goff said.

He also said the threat of a fine would help him stop texting on the road.

Gloria Cordes Larson, president of Bentley University, said she has coped with a deep and at times abnormal affection for her BlackBerry, though she also carries an iPhone now.

Yet Larson said she keeps both her phones out of reach while driving, turning them on mute and hiding them in the glove box or on the back seat. She said she has never risked using the phones while on the road in Massachusetts, where she described drivers as “berserk.’’

“It’s my only rule,’’ she said of her cellphone habits. Plus, she said, she still has time to check both devices at least 100 times a day.

“If you left me to choose between my husband and my BlackBerry,’’ Larson said, “I’m not sure what I would do.’’

Michael Levenson of the Globe staff contributed to this story. Megan Woolhouse can be reached at, Stephanie Ebbert at