Massachusetts House Votes to Ban Handheld Devices by Drivers

A driver could not hold a phone and put it on speakerphone; it would have to be in a hands-free mode, according to Transportation Committee Chair William Straus, D-Mattapoisett.

by Shira Schoenberg, The Republican / May 16, 2019
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(TNS) — The Massachusetts House voted Wednesday evening to ban the use of handheld phones while driving.

The vote on H.3793 was 155-2.

“I think that it was the general feeling that people, the driving public in particular and families throughout the commonwealth, have been adversely affected by the use of cellphones while driving,” House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, said before the vote. “Many people have had either personal experiences or constituents in their area who have had some real serious accidents, some ending unfortunately in death.”

This was the first time that the House has voted in favor of a ban, a policy that has passed the Senate in prior years and has the support of Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican. The Senate is expected to take up a version of a hands-free bill next month.

The House bill would ban drivers from using any mobile electronic device while driving unless the device is being used in hands-free mode. Drivers would be barred from viewing texts, images or videos while driving. The only exception would be viewing a map or navigation system on a device that is affixed to the windshield or mounted on a dashboard or console.

A driver could not hold a phone and put it on speakerphone; it would have to be in a hands-free mode, according to Transportation Committee Chair William Straus, D-Mattapoisett.

There would be exceptions made for emergencies — if someone needs medical assistance, has a disabled car, witnesses a car crash or otherwise needs to call emergency personnel for a safety reason.

Violating the law would be punishable by a $100 fine for a first offense, $250 fine for a second offense and $500 fine for a third or subsequent offense. A ticket would not result in an insurance surcharge.

From the time the law goes into effect until Dec. 31, 2019, a first violation would result in only a warning, not a fine. Straus said this will give the police time to educate the public about the change in law and explain what it takes to comply.

Advocates for the policy note that distracted driving is a leading cause of car crashes.

Rep. John Barrett, D-North Adams, talked on the House floor about Merritt Levitan, a constituent who embarked on a cross-country bike ride in 2013 before starting college at Colgate University. She was hit by a distracted driver and died.

“What happened shouldn't have happened,” Barrett said, according to a State House News Service transcript.

Barrett said Levitan’s parents met with the 21-year-old driver, who was texting while driving. “They forgave him, with a promise that he too would bring their message about driving,” Barrett said.

One concern that has been raised with a cellphone ban is that the police will racially profile drivers and will be more likely to pull over black or Latino drivers than white drivers.

The House bill would require police officers to note the race of all individuals who are given a ticket or issued a written warning for any traffic stop. That information would be gathered into an annual report. If a police barracks or department appears to have engaged in racial or gender profiling, the department could be required to collect information on all traffic stops, including those that do not result in a citation, for a year.

The bill would appropriate $300,000 to do the data collection and analysis.

All data collected would be private and would be destroyed after three years.

Massachusetts has collected racial data on traffic stops since 2000. But lawmakers say police officers do not always record the information, and no reports or analyses have been done with the data in recent years.

Rahsaan Hall, director of the racial justice program for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said he appreciates that the House bill includes data collection, but he thinks data should be collected on all stops, not just stops that result in tickets or citations.

“Racial profiling just isn’t about who’s ticketed or who receives a citation,” Hall said. “The concern is that people of color, particularly black and Latinx motorists, are pulled over more often. When we don’t have the data about all stops, we don’t have a full picture of who’s being pulled over and why and what happens after they’re pulled over.”

During debate on the House floor, lawmakers did not vote on an amendment that would have required racial data to be collected for all stops, but instead adopted an amendment to have the secretary of public safety study alternative methods for collecting more accurate data, including the feasibility of recording race and gender data for all traffic stops.

State officials would also be required by the bill to develop a public awareness campaign to educate people about the dangers posed by using a phone while driving.

©2019 The Republican, Springfield, Mass.. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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