Massachusetts drivers could soon be fined for talking on a cellular phone without a hands-free device, after state senators on Thursday voted to approve a bill that would ban using a mobile device while driving.
If the House and the governor sign off, Massachusetts would join more than a dozen states across the country, including Connecticut, New Hampshire, and New York, that don’t allow drivers to speak on their phones without a hands-free device.
The bill expands on current distracted-driving bans in Massachusetts: Drivers under age 18 can be fined for speaking on the phone and all drivers are banned from texting while driving.
Senator Cynthia S. Creem, a Newton Democrat and cosponsor of the legislation, said the ban is a matter of public safety.
“This will eliminate distractions when a driver is dialing a number, entering an address, or reading an e-mail,” she said. “I hope this legislation will save lives here in Massachusetts.”
The bill passed on Thursday would set steep fines for drivers who are caught speaking on their cellphones without a hands-free device while driving: Drivers would be fined $100 the first time they are caught, $250 for a second time, and $500 for a third or subsequent time. Every repeat offense would also require that the driver take a distracted-driving class.
The bill would exempt public safety personnel while doing their job and would allow drivers to be exempted if they can provide evidence that they needed to make an emergency call.
Senator Mark C. Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat who sponsored the bill, said that such a ban would also enable police to better enforce already-existing texting and cellphone- use restrictions on drivers. And it wouldn’t stop people from speaking on the phone while driving, in general.
“We’re saying that if you’re going to be driving a vehicle, you can only use a mobile electronic device in a hands-free mode,” he said. “It’s not radical stuff.”
Similar legislation has been introduced but failed in the past.
The House has given initial approval to a similar ban, after hearing testimony from several families of victims affected by car accidents caused by cellphone use.
Tim Buckley, a spokesman for Governor Charlie Baker, said the governor is “open to enhanced measures to increase safety on the roadways, and we look forward to reviewing the bill.”
Although the bill passed by a large margin on Thursday, Senator Michael J. Barrett, a Democrat representing Lexington, warned lawmakers that they needed to be cautious about the law and its effect on poorer and minority communities. He referenced statistics recently released by the Boston Police Department that show police stops, searches, and interrogations disproportionately affect African-American males.
“I want us to think about what kind of the tens of thousands of additional police stops that we’re triggering,” he said.
Barrett also said technology is progressing in a way that would make the law less necessary in the future. For example, some cars are already able to help stop an accident before it happens, he said.
“We’re going to have many fewer accidents of all kinds, and what we’re doing for four or five years is declaring open season on working people and poor people,” he said.
Lawmakers had a lengthy discussion Thursday about whether the government should allow fined drivers to be forgiven for a first offense if they can prove that they purchased hands-free technology after being caught by law enforcement. The addition to the bill ultimately failed to pass.
Such hands-free cellphone laws have garnered support from automotive insurance companies. In October, Mary Maguire, the director of public and legislative affairs at AAA of Southern New England, testified in favor of the bill in front of the House.
“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,” she said at the time.