Jerry Cibley’s son was speaking to him on his cellphone right before he died in a fatal accident. Emily Stein’s father was killed by a driver who had been punching in directions on her GPS.
On Tuesday, Cibley and Stein urged the Legislature to ban drivers from using cellular phones or similar devices on the road, unless they’re using a hands-free device. Doing so, they said, could save lives.
“I’ve only seen the problem get worse,” Stein told legislators. “Every time I’m on the road, I feel like we are surrounded by drivers who are oblivious to their surroundings and they are dismissive of the current laws.”
Since 2010, Massachusetts drivers under 18 have been banned from using cellphones, and nobody is allowed to text behind the wheel. But Stein said many drivers who get pulled over for texting get out of tickets by saying they were using the GPS systems on their phones or punching in a phone number.
The push for stricter distracted driving laws is not new, but more New England states have begun to enact hands-free laws for drivers. Vermont passed such a bill in 2014, and New Hampshire did the same last year. According to the Governor’s Safety Highway Association, 14 states and Washington, D.C., have hand-held bans in place.
Cibley, who has spoken across the country to push for distracted-driving bans, said legislators must pass the bill to help other drivers avoid the fate of his 18-year-old son, Jordan. The Foxborough resident said he has been pushing for such a ban since the night before Jordan’s funeral, when he went on the radio to talk about the dangers of using the phone while driving. Cibley said he believed some legislation has stalled because of studies that show drivers are often still distracted, even with hands-free devices. But he said such laws are worth it if they can save even one life.
Legislators this session have introduced 18 bills related to distracted driving and speed limits. Several of those proposals would ban cellphone use without a hands-free device. There would be an exception for emergencies.
Though similar bills have previously failed to clear the Legislature, Tuesday’s hearing attracted many supporters, including some from the automotive insurance industry. Nobody testified against the bills on Tuesday.
Mary Maguire, the director of public and legislative affairs at AAA of Southern New England, testified in favor of a hands-free bill, saying distracted driving accounts for 3,000 to 4,000 deaths a year across the country.
She told legislators that she had a personal connection to the issue: Cibley’s son had died in her yard after driving into a tree. Maguire, who went on to work at AAA shortly afterward, said more than nine people a day die because of distracted driving in the country.
“That is outrageous and simply unacceptable,” she said. “By taking the phones out of people’s hands, not only will people be safer and more confident, but everyone on the road will be safer as well.”
Timothy Kelleher, who testified on behalf of the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys, said a House bill banning hand-held cellphone use could make a “difference in society.”
“If we can get this bill passed, it’s absolutely going to save lives,” he said.
Besides banning cellular phone use, lawmakers will also tackle other issues involving dangerous driving. Two bills have pushed to increase penalties for texting while driving, which currently costs drivers $100 the first time they are caught.
On Tuesday, state Senator Thomas M. McGee, the cochairman of the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee, said he saw much support for the hands-free bill from state Representative William M. Straus, his cochairman on the committee. He said he hoped the testimony from those affected by distracted driving will help generate a groundswell of support.
“I think maybe the timing is right and that people can finally take a look at this and really realize the consequences of distracted driving,” he said.