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Legislators to vote on hands-free cellphone bill

(George Rizer for the Boston Globe)

The Massachusetts House is slated to vote Wednesday on a bill that would ban the use a hand-held cellphones while driving and add new language to traffic tickets that could allow officials to track the race of all motorists issued a citation or warning, according to copy of the legislation.

The bill and long-awaited vote mark a significant step for an issue that’s languished on Beacon Hill for years but has gained steam in recent months, moving Massachusetts closer to joining 16 other states, including each of its immediate neighbors, that have passed similar proposals.

The House version, which the House Committee on Ways and Means sent to members Tuesday night, would impose fines ranging from $100, for a first offense, to $500, for third and subsequent offenses, for drivers who use hand-held phones for any purpose but emergencies.

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Motorists would have to use a Bluetooth device or another speaker system for voice calling, though the bill’s language would allow them to do a “single tap or swipe” to activate or deactivate a device’s hands-free mode. Drivers would also be allowed to use a GPS device that’s mounted to their vehicle’s windshield, dashboard or center console as long as it “does not impede the operation of the motor vehicle.”

House leaders, in seeking to address concerns over racial profiling, also included language that directs the Registry of Motor Vehicles to add a field on traffic tickets that “indicate the race of each individual cited or issued a written warning by a police officer.”

Each year, the state would also be required to collect and analyze the data and reports its findings to lawmakers, the attorney general, and others. If the data “suggest” that a state police barracks or local police department “appears to have engaged in racial or gender profiling,” it would then be required to collect information on all traffic stops, including those that didn’t end in a warning, citation or arrest, for a year, according to the bill.

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House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said earlier this week that the chamber would take up the bill Wednesday.

“The House is proud to move this policy forward for Massachusetts – making our roads safer,” DeLeo said in a statement. “Distracted driving is a factor in too many dangerous and fatal motor vehicle accidents. This bill will protect our drivers, passengers and pedestrians.”

The racial profiling aspect has been a key holdup of the hands-free legislation in previous years, particularly in the House. Byron Rushing, who was assistant majority leader under DeLeo before losing his reelection bid last November, had long wanted the data collection requirement. While the state Senate passed a version of the bill in 2017 that included such a provision, law enforcement officials resisted, stopping the bill in the House.

Others, however, including leaders at the ACLU of Massachusetts, have said they would not support legislation that does not require race-data tracking.

DeLeo told reporters Monday that legislative leaders had spent “quite a bit of time” reviewing aspects of the bill of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, and that lawmakers had spent the weekend fine-tuning its details.

“I think what they’re working on is the racial profiling aspect of it,” DeLeo said Monday.

Representative Aaron Michlewitz, the House budget chair, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday night.

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The state Senate was slated to vote on its own version of the legislation last week before it was tabled to give senators more time to tinker with and file amendments for their upcoming budget debate. The upper chamber is now expected to take up the legislation in early June.

Like the House version, the Senate bill would impose fines as high as $500. It also would require law enforcement agencies to collect data each time a motorist is stopped for using a phone, including the “perceived” race or ethnicity of the driver.

Governor Charlie Baker has also embraced the hands-free requirement after previously being a skeptic, including it in a broader bill about roadway safety filed for this legislative session in January.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com.