Handheld device ban for drivers passes Mass. Senate
By State House News Service | January 21, 2016, 21:05 EST
BOSTON – Following up on a 2010 law that critics say has been ineffective, the Massachusetts Senate on Thursday approved a ban on the use of hand-held cell phones and other electronic devices while driving.
After an afternoon of debate on more than 20 amendments, the Senate passed the measure that would expand the current state law that bans texting while driving to prohibit the use of all electronic devices behind the wheel, except for those used in hands-free mode. The bill was approved on a voice vote, without votes recorded for each member.
“We simply want you to use the technology that’s available — very, very cheap — and to save lives by using a mobile electronic device in a hands-free mode,” said Sen. Mark Montigny, a sponsor of the bill. “We’re simply saying if you’re going to drive and you’re going to talk on the phone, we want you to use simple, cheap tech because we think it’s priceless in the way we save lives.”
The bill (S 2093) establishes a tiered series of fines, with first-time offenders charged $100. A second violation results in a $250 fine, and the fine is $500 for third and subsequent offenses. Drivers accruing three or more violations would be subject to insurance surcharges.
While the House of Representatives passed a similar ban last year, the two measures differ in some respects. So as the Senate bill goes over to the House, lawmakers there may make changes. Speaker Robert DeLeo said Thursday he wants to hear from more people about the need for a ban on handheld cell phones by motorists.
“A lot of folks had mentioned to me that they feel it’s just as bad in other words to listen to radio as it is to have a handheld phone, so I’ll give those folks the opportunity to speak to me and then decide from there,” DeLeo told reporters. “In the past I’ve been somewhat questionable about my support for the legislation.”
Sen. James Timilty filed an amendment to allow public safety officials — police officers, volunteer and career firefighters, and others — to use their cell phones while driving if the purpose of the call relates to their official duties.
“I don’t understand how I, as a citizen, you find it that I am distracted driving and I am a danger on the road while I’m speaking on my cell phone and I, as a citizen, am going to be required to purchase and invest in equipment to go hands-free,” Sen. Michael Rodrigues said. “Whereas the individuals and law enforcement community that was really advocating for this law is now saying, ‘Not us. Do as I say, not as I do. It’s OK for us to drive distracted at high rates of speed responding to a public safety emergency.'”
Timilty said that the purpose of his amendment, which was adopted 33-3, was to give public safety officials the ability to use their cell phones while driving if it could help them respond to an emergency quicker or with more information.
Sen. Michael Barrett said he had “serious problems” with the bill as it was originally drafted and filed three amendments he said would better refine the legislation. In remarks on the Senate floor, Barrett said he was concerned that the bill would generate thousands of additional “selectively enforced” traffic stops — which he said disproportionately target African-American men — and that the fines associated with the bill were too steep for working class and poor residents.
Barrett added that car manufacturers are beginning to incorporate crash-detecting technology in new models and advances in that technology could someday soon eliminate the need for the legislation.
“We have a declining problem, we have smarter cars. We also have the undeniable reality of selective enforcement,” he said. “We need to soften this legislation a little. It’s a four- or five-year problem until smart car technology solves it and we’re coming down with too heavy a hammer.”
Ultimately, the Senate adopted a redrafted version of a Barrett amendment to decrease the monetary fines for subsequent offenses by the to-be-determined cost of a distracted driving class required by a Sen. Michael Moore amendment for repeat offenders.
Another adopted amendment, filed by Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, will charge the Registry of Motor Vehicles with developing and implementing an annual public awareness campaign on the hands-free rules and the consequences of distracted driving.
Speaking in favor of the amendment, Sen. Donald Humason, a Westfield Republican, said that lawmakers have a responsibility to educate constituents who are too busy to keep up with what they are debating. Montigny said the registry “has not done a good enough job” raising awareness around distracted driving.
“We’re going to say they need to do better,” he said.
Tarr also attempted to amend the bill by removing the insurance surcharge associated with multiple violations and by allowing first-time offenders to avoid their fine if they provide proof they have since purchased a device allowing them to operate their phone hands-free. Senators suggested dashboard mounts or Bluetooth equipment as possible examples. Both amendments were rejected.
The amendment dealing with initial violations, rejected on a 12-24 vote, “calls into question whether the bill itself is about punishment or compliance,” Tarr said. He said the fine alternative encouraged good behavior without punishing people “to the maximum extent possible.”
The Senate unanimously adopted a provision to study the length of time unsafe driver points remain on a driver’s record for the purposes of insurance. Tarr, who sponsored the amendment, said the points remain on a driver’s record for about six years in Massachusetts, compared to an average of 2.5 years, describing the length of time as “punitive.”
Montigny argued, often successfully, against several amendments, including a few that he argued would “gut” the bill – such as a Tarr provision rejected 8-28 that would have required a motorist to drive recklessly while using a handheld cell phone to trigger a violation.
Tarr countered more than once that the legislation’s restrictions made it so difficult to use a hands-free phone it might as well have been an outright ban on all device use.
Montigny said that he would have supported a “more strict bill,” but the Senate was a “body of compromise” and had tried to craft a reasonable bill reflecting various interests and concerns.
On a 25 to 11 vote, the Senate inserted Republican-sponsored language into the bill clarifying that none of the proposed statute should be construed to authorize the seizure or forfeiture of a cell phone. Montigny argued court decisions made that amendment unnecessary.
The bill now goes to the House, which has already given its initial approval to a similar bill (H 3315) filed by Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. William Straus.
Written by Colin A. Young and Katie Lannan