By Gregory B. Hladky
10:25 AM EST, December 12, 2012
So you're driving north out of Connecticut and you've got your earbuds on, grooving to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" or maybe a heavy metal cut like AC/DC's "Hell's Bells," and you're all nice and legal (as long as you're older than 17).
Then you cross the state line into Massachusetts. Suddenly you're breaking the law, dude, unless you take one bud out so you can hear stuff like emergency sirens from cop cars or fire trucks or ambulances.
Okay, you got one bud out and figure you're back in legal territory again. But if you happened to turn southeast into Rhode Island, you're screwed again. Those Rhode Islanders have made it totally against the law to drive with any sort of earbuds or headphones on.
The differences between Connecticut and our neighboring states when it comes to driving with headphones or earbuds was highlighted recently when Massachusetts began using its electronic highway signs to remind drivers of the law up there. (New York, by the way, also requires you to keep one ear free.)
"We have no earbud law," says Bill Seymour, spokesman for Connecticut's Department of Motor Vehicles. He says this state does ban 16- and 17-year-olds from using any "mobile electronic device" while driving, which covers both cellphones and things like iPods, whether you're using headphones or not. They can, however, listen to the car stereo because that isn't a "mobile electronic device" under the state's definition. Go figure.
Connecticut's law also prohibits any drivers from talking on a hand-held cell except in emergencies, but is totally cool with using headphones or earbuds with cellphones or iPods or stereos, etc.
Most other states in the nation have a similarly lackadaisical attitude about headphones, or they have that "only one earbud" thing like Massachusetts.
The cochairman of the Connecticut Legislature's Transportation Committee reluctantly acknowledges that keeping at least one ear free to listen for emergency sirens or somebody honking to warn of danger does make sense.
"Especially if you're playing loud music, it's probably difficult [to be aware of emergency vehicles coming] unless you're a highly alert driver," says state Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington.
Maynard says he'll be talking to members of his committee about whether Connecticut should consider its own "one-earbud" law during the upcoming 2013 General Assembly session. But he doesn't sound all that happy about it.
"I frankly get sick of our continual encroachment on personal liberties, but in that case it probably makes sense," Maynard says.
The "father" of Connecticut's law banning the use of hand-held cellphones while driving is state Rep. Dick Roy of Milford. It took him seven long years to convince his fellow lawmakers that using one hand to talk on a cellphone while driving was just too damned distracting, and he thinks the same holds true for listening with both ears to music or telephonic conversations via headphones or earbuds while operating a motor vehicle.
"The headphone directs your whole attention to whatever you're listening to," says Roy. "Nothing outside gets through… It's certainly not a safe thing to do."
Roy is retiring from the legislature as of January, but he thinks adopting at least the same one-earbud system of Massachusetts and New York makes a lot of sense. He points out that national studies indicate distracted driving in all its forms now accounts for something like 3,000 deaths a year in the U.S.
The National Transportation Safety Board last year suggested the dangers of distracted driving were so high that all cellphone calls involving drivers should be totally banned, even if the drivers were using hands-free technology like headphones, earbuds or in-dash systems.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has also made distracted driving a top priority, but he's stopped short of advocating a total cellphone ban for drivers.
Maynard says the issue of driving with headphones or earbuds on hasn't come up before during the two years he's been cochair of the transportation panel, but that is about to change.
"It's one of those things that," Maynard says, "if it's brought to your attention you should probably look at."
Particularly when it might save a few lives.
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