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As hand-held cellphone ban stalls, activists weigh ballot question

As another legislative season approaches an end without new rules to curb distracted driving in Massachusetts, frustrated activists are considering a ballot question to ask voters whether to ban hand-held cellphone use while driving.
As another legislative season approaches an end without new rules to curb distracted driving in Massachusetts, frustrated activists are considering a ballot question to ask voters whether to ban hand-held cellphone use while driving.(George Rizer for the Boston Globe/file)

As another legislative season approaches an end without new rules to curb distracted driving in Massachusetts, frustrated activists are considering a ballot question to ask voters whether to ban hand-held cellphone use while driving.

The proposed ban suffered a major setback last week, when negotiations between police and a key lawmaker broke down over the issue of racial profiling. As other states across the Northeast have adopted hand-held bans in a bid to reduce traffic deaths, Massachusetts lawmakers have struggled to square their proposal with concerns that police could use the new power to target minority drivers.

With the two-year session on Beacon Hill set to end Tuesday, advocates for the ban now say they will try to bring the question directly to voters in 2020 if lawmakers don’t act.

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“It’s taken them 10 years to not compromise on a traffic safety bill,” said Emily Stein, president of the Safe Roads Alliance, which has pushed for the ban. “Their job is to listen to the constituents, and clearly they aren’t.”

Stein and other activists may find widespread support for the ban if they went to the ballot.

The proposal has the backing of Governor Charlie Baker. And a survey last winter by the MassINC Polling Group found nearly 80 percent of voters support taking phones out of drivers’ hands, while AAA Northeast says about three-quarters of its members are supportive.

Whether motorists would say the same in the privacy of a voting booth may be another matter, since thousands are cited for violating the state’s existing ban on texting and driving each year.

Law enforcement officials say the hands-free ban would make it easier to enforce the oft-flouted no-texting rule. Police say it can be hard to tell when a driver is using his or her phone for a legal purpose, such as dialing a number or following directions, or for texting, leading to lax enforcement.

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The proposed measure would prohibit drivers from having phones in their hands, so they would have to instead use a Bluetooth device or similar speaker system for voice calls and dashboard mounts and other holders for mapping functions.

Similar rules are in place in 16 states, including each one bordering Massachusetts.

No one involved in the debate on Beacon Hill would say the proposal is dead for the year, though few are optimistic about a last-minute deal before Tuesday night. On Thursday, activists met with staff of House Speaker Robert DeLeo to press their case, but they said they received little assurance or even information about the prognosis for the ban.

DeLeo’s office said the bill remains under review.

The biggest issue stalling the distracted driving bill is racial profiling. State Representative Byron Rushing, a Boston Democrat and member of the House leadership, has vowed to oppose any new law that allows traffic stops, unless it protects black and Hispanic motorists from being pulled over at disproportionate rates.

The state Senate last year passed a hands-free cellphone law that required police to collect and report racial data about all types of traffic stops, not just phone use.

Rushing supports that approach, but local police chiefs in Massachusetts do not. Rushing has held talks with police officials to draft more amenable language.

On Wednesday, Steven Wojnar, president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, wrote Rushing to recommend instead forming a working group to study and eventually develop a data-tracking system. Rushing promptly rejected the proposal as inadequate.

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“I was shocked at his attitude, after suggesting we could compromise on this language,” Rushing said.

Rushing said he had pitched a different version of the profiling rules to Wojnar, though he declined to say what that entailed.

Wojnar, who is the police chief in Dudley, said police are not opposed to collecting the data; rather, their concern is over how the numbers are analyzed. Comparing stops of people of color to the town’s population as a whole could result in unfair conclusions about bias, he said, as not all drivers that local officers pull over are residents of that town.

“Our concern here is we don’t have a verified formula to determine the driving population of communities,” he said. “Chances are, the demographics of the driving population through that town is going to be different from the town itself. . . . What is going to be the standard of comparison?”

Wojnar and Rushing both said they hoped the issues could be resolved, if not this month, then in the next legislative session, which begins in January.

Other members of the Massachusetts House believe the two issues should not be debated together. Representative William Straus, a Mattapoisset Democrat who leads transportation policy in the chamber, said the hand-held ban deserves “consideration on its own merits.”

“I’m not comfortable tasking police around the state with creation of a time, date, and location searchable database of where ethnic and language minorities are traveling,” he said.

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Massachusetts is not the only state where discrimination concerns have factored into a distracted-driving debate. In Florida, an effort to strengthen the state’s texting and driving law earlier this year collapsed over these concerns, even after elected officials added language meant to address profiling issues.

Activists — many of whom have lost family members to distracted drivers — have tried to help bridge the divide over racial profiling, meeting with both legislators and law enforcement officials.

But after months of no progress, Stein said she’s frustrated the stalemate over racial profiling is holding up a hands-free law.

“They both need to be addressed, but they need to be separated,” she said. “This is not the right bill to be a bargaining chip.”


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