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Shifting gears, Baker urges ban on handheld devices while driving

Governor Charlie Baker
Governor Charlie BakerJohn Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker on Tuesday called on lawmakers to ban use of handheld devices by drivers, marking a shift in opinion from earlier this year when he questioned the need for new government restrictions.

During an event on holiday roadway safety Tuesday, Baker called on the Legislature to require drivers to use hands-free technology such as Bluetooth if they want to talk on their cellphones, or pull over to plot addresses in GPS systems and post to social media sites.

“There has been in fact an increase in accidents and fatalities associated with distracted driving. This is something everybody needs to take seriously,” Baker said. “We think it’s time for us to weigh the circumstances and the difficulties and in some cases the dangers associated with distracted driving up against the benefits and opportunities associated with hands-free.”

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A bill banning those practices passed the state Senate in July, and is pending in the House. The proposal would fine drivers $100 for the first offense — and up to $500 for subsequent offenses — for handling a mobile device, except for a “single touch or swipe” in order to launch an application.

The two-year legislative term ends next summer. House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s office said he would discuss the legislation “in the near future” with his top transportation adviser.

In 2010, the state banned texting while driving. Hands-free driving laws are in place in 15 states, including nearly all of New England, and Washington, D.C.

Baker’s comments mark something of a shift from February, when, in an interview on WGBH radio, he expressed skepticism about the need for such a law and questioned the fairness of allowing only drivers with Bluetooth devices to talk on the phone.

But on Tuesday, Baker said technology has made it easier for drivers to talk hands-free without Bluetooth devices, though he did not name any examples.

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Safety advocates and law enforcement officials have said the current law is difficult to enforce. For example, a driver who may be texting can say they had simply been dialing a phone number, which is not against the law.

Baker on Tuesday also spoke in favor of three other roadway safety bills proposed by his administration that would give the state more power to lower speed limits in active work sites and prosecute accused drunk drivers.


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.