What ever happened to the Mass. cellphone ban for drivers?
A proposal to ban hand-held cellphone use while driving has strong public support and the backing of Governor Charlie Baker amid mounting concerns about surging traffic deaths.
But the longstanding effort to reduce distracted driving in the state remains stalled on Beacon Hill, largely over concerns of racial profiling, and it’s unclear whether a new law will emerge before the formal legislative session ends in July.
Sixteen states already prohibit drivers from behind-the-wheel cellphone use. Advocates who have pushed the ban for years say they are frustrated by the lack of progress in Massachusetts.
“I just don’t think the Legislature cares,” said Jerry Cibley, a Foxborough resident whose son Jordan, more than a decade ago, died in a crash while driving and talking on the phone. “I want this legislation passed. It needs to be passed.”
Versions of the bill have passed the state Senate in 2016 and 2017, but have foundered in the House. The most recent version includes fines as high as $500 for motorists who use hand-held phones for any purpose but emergencies. Drivers would have to use a Bluetooth device or another speaker system for voice calling.
Supporters see a twofold benefit for road safety. First, they believe removing phones from people’s hands would force them to focus on the road, although some highway safety groups — including the National Safety Council — contend even hands-free calling poses a distraction.
Second, a hands-free law would make it easier to enforce the current ban against texting while driving. Supporters say the texting ban, passed in 2010, is ineffective because police officers cannot easily tell whether somebody is texting or dialing a number.
The number of texting and driving citations issued in Massachusetts increased in recent years to more than 8,600 in 2016, though they declined to 6,300 in 2017. But as drivers and pedestrians alike can attest, the law is widely flouted.
“If law enforcement cannot enforce the laws, then there’s no point in following them,” said Emily Stein, president of the advocacy group Safe Roads Alliance.
But within days, House Speaker Robert DeLeo tempered their enthusiasm, saying legislators were concerned the legislation would result in increased traffic stops of black and Hispanic drivers.
State Representative Byron Rushing, a Boston Democrat who is among the House leadership, said he is unwilling to support hands-free legislation without a provision to ensure traffic stops don’t impact minority drivers at a higher rate. Rushing has taken the same position in the long-running debate over whether officers should be able to pull over motorists for not wearing a seat belt, which has been stalled by similar concerns.
Officers can cite drivers for not wearing a seat belt only if they are pulled over for some other reason.
Rushing said distracted driving is a serious problem, but he wants any bill to include requirements that all traffic stops be logged and analyzed for racial bias. Law enforcement officials do not typically support such requirements, Rushing said, but he hopes they may make an exception to pass distracted-driving legislation.
“I’m essentially bribing them,” Rushing said. “I would seriously consider primary enforcement if they’d just relax about racial profiling [rules].”
The Senate bill requires all law enforcement agencies to collect data for traffic stops to address profiling concerns. Some advocates hope that could be enough to win passage in the House.
But DeLeo spokeswoman Whitney Ferguson said only that the bill remains “under consideration.”
Felix Browne, a spokesman for the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety, said the traffic stop provision would be “carefully reviewed” if it becomes law. State Police officials said they already review race and ethnicity data from traffic stops.
Steven Wojnar, president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, said lawmakers were “making a racial profiling issue out of something that is a basic public safety issue.”
He expressed concerns about how the data would be interpreted. Officers in some communities might stop a higher rate of minority drivers simply because of the demographics from surrounding towns, he noted.
Still Wojnar, the police chief in Dudley, said police are willing to work with lawmakers.
In 2016, a Globe analysis found that the race and ethnicity of drivers cited for texting nearly mirrored the state’s demographics.
William Straus, the House chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation and a supporter of stricter distracted-driving rules, said he hopes the hand-held ban will move forward in the coming weeks. He doesn’t see the racial profiling issue as directly relevant, but said members could debate the issue.
“It’s always a challenging process to get everybody on the same page,” he said.
Hand-held phone bans are becoming more common nationally and appear to have widespread support in Massachusetts.
A winter poll by the MassINC Polling Group found that nearly 80 percent of residents back a cellphone ban for motorists, with support across demographic and partisan lines. AAA Northeast reports that 74 percent of its members support the proposal.
Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, and a dozen other states have adopted hands-free laws. Rhode Island’s ban takes effect in June.
ZenDrive, a company that uses technology to chart cellphone distractions among drivers, has found that “laws that ban hand-held phone use actually reduce the amount of time per trip drivers use their phones.” However, its study also found that Vermont has the highest rate of distracted driving. Massachusetts ranked 10th highest.