BY Matt Murphy | State House News Service | May 2, 2019
BOSTON — After passing similar proposals in back-to-back sessions over the past four years, the Senate plans to vote once again next week on legislation to ban the hand-held use of cellphones while driving.
The complete cellphone ban is included in a distracted driving bill that was released by a Senate committee and marked for debate next Thursday, starting the ball rolling on a bill that stalled out in the House last year, but may be finally primed for passage in both branches.
The legislation, if it were to clear the House and be signed by Gov. Charlie Baker, would make Massachusetts the seventeenth state to ban hand-held cellphone use behind the wheel.
“Without predicting, I feel that there’s really good momentum to get it done,” said Sen. Mark Montigny, a longtime supporter and sponsor of the legislation.
The bill (S 2198) would prohibit anyone operating a vehicle from viewing video content and touching or holding a mobile electronic device, except to perform a single tap or swipe to activate or deactivate hands-free mode or a navigation device.
Fines for violating the ban on hand-held cellphone use while driving would start at $100 for a first offense and escalate to $250 for a second offense and $500 for a third offense. Subsequent violations would be considered surchargeable offenses for the purpose of calculating insurance costs.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee polled the bill out favorably on Thursday morning. It was a redraft of legislation filed by Montigny and Sen. Cynthia Creem, and no one on the committee voted against the measure.
Republican Sens. Viriato deMacedo and Ryan Fattman reserved their rights, and Sens. Michael Barrett and Nick Collins, both Democrats, did not vote.
Fattman told the News Service he still has some concerns with the bill and planned to draft amendments, which are due by noon Monday.
Fattman said the language in the bill governing phone use during emergencies may be too restrictive, and used the example of a family member facing a day care emergency as a situation that might need to be addressed.
“The devils are in the details,” Fattman said.
The bill would allow a driver to handle their cellphone in an emergency. Emergencies are defined as situations when a driver needs to report that a motor vehicle was disabled, that medical attention was required; that police, fire or other emergency service was necessary for the operator or a passenger, or that a disabled vehicle or accident occurred in the roadway.
Gov. Baker has come around to support the idea of banning hand-held cellphone use while driving, and included a ban in his comprehensive road safety bill filed in January.
The governor’s bill would also allow police to pull over drivers for not wearing their seat belts without another reason to stop a vehicle, and require anyone convicted of a first offense for operating under the influence who applies for a hardship license to use an ignition interlock device for a minimum of six months.
The Senate bill does not include the primary enforcement seat belt measure or the ignition interlock expansion.
Montigny, who has been beating the drum for a hands-free law since 2004 even before texting became a ubiquitous form of communication, said he’s grateful to Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues for readying the bill before the annual budget debate gets underway later this month.
The New Bedford Democrat sent a letter to the committee earlier this week with advocates from Boston Children’s Hospital, the Safe Roads Alliance, and TextLess Live More requesting action.
“I think this will save lives,” Montigny said. “In 2010, we did the split-the-baby law, which has only frustrated law enforcement. Typical Beacon Hill. If we had done nothing, pressure would have mounted. But here we are in 2019 and we still have people dying on the roads.”
In 2010, the Legislature banned texting and emailing while driving, but stopped short of a full ban on hand-held use to make phone calls.
“This year it really does seem to have the public behind us, the pressure from law enforcement and the technology is there and available to so many more people,” Montigny said.
The Senate bill also includes language important to legislators and community activists concerned that stricter enforcement will lead to racial profiling. The bill requires police agencies to collect and submit certain statistical data for every traffic stop made and citation issued under the law to the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security to monitor enforcement.
Similar bills have advanced in the House in each of the past two sessions, but failed to fully clear the House.
Early last month, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he had discussed the matter with Rep. William Straus, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, and Assistant Majority Leader Joseph Wagner “and will engage in continued discussions with the membership following action from the Transportation Committee.”
Also under the Senate bill, public safety officials and emergency first responders would be exempt from the ban while engaged in active performance of their duties, and the bill explicitly prohibit bus drivers from using mobile devices, except in cases of emergency.
Junior operators would also be allowed to handle their phones for emergencies, including to call police or fire for the safety of a pedestrian or traveler in the roadway, including bicycle lanes.
The Registry of Motor Vehicle would be tasked with developing an annual public awareness campaign for junior and adult drivers on the dangers of distracted driving and the restrictions and penalties on mobile device use.