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House approves ban on hand-held phones while driving

Massachusetts now has momentum towards joining 18 other states, including each of its immediate neighbors in outlawing drivers from using hand-held devices, except for in emergencies.
Massachusetts now has momentum towards joining 18 other states, including each of its immediate neighbors in outlawing drivers from using hand-held devices, except for in emergencies. (Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press/File)

The Massachusetts House overwhelmingly passed legislation Wednesday to ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving, giving a long-awaited green light to a measure that could reshape the driving habits of countless motorists across the state.

The bill, which passed, 155-2, also includes a hotly debated component lawmakers say will better detect whether law enforcement officers are racially profiling drivers — though some advocates say it doesn’t go far enough.

A hand-held device ban has long languished on Beacon Hill despite twice passing the Senate in recent legislative sessions and gaining support among the wider public, with polls and surveys showing voters support taking phones out of motorists’ hands.

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Wednesday marked the first time the House had taken up and passed a hand-held ban measure in recent years — giving Massachusetts momentum toward joining 18 other states, including each of its immediate neighbors, in outlawing the use of hand-held phones by drivers for any purpose except emergencies. The Senate is expected to vote on its own version in early June, and Governor Charlie Baker has previously expressed support for a ban.

“We’re actually here. We’ve been waiting a long time to get to this point where the House votes,” said Emily Stein, a longtime activist with the Safe Roads Alliance, whose father was killed by a distracted driver in 2011.

“It has been exhausting,” she added.

The House version would impose fines for drivers who violate the ban, ranging from $100 for a first offense to $500 for third and subsequent offenses. Motorists would have to use a Bluetooth device or another speaker system for voice calling, though drivers would be allowed to make 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.”

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The bill includes a carve-out allowing first-time offenders to receive only a warning, instead of a ticket, until Dec. 31 in what lawmakers deemed a “public education” period.

Those aspects of the House bill faced little resistance and largely mirror the Senate proposal.

Concerns over distracted driving have only grown with the proliferation of smartphones and other devices. Nationally, nearly 3,200 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers in 2017, according to federal statistics.

The key holdup for years has been a racial profiling component of the legislation, particularly in the House. Some lawmakers have expressed concerns that a ban would result in increased traffic stops of black and Hispanic drivers, while police organizations resisted data-collection requirements.

The House bill that passed Wednesday sought to address the issue by directing the Registry of Motor Vehicles to add a section on traffic tickets to record “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 report 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,” that department 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.

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But advocates say to fully capture the potential of racial profiling, the language should be expanded to include all stops, not just those that end in a warning or citation. The version the Senate will consider next month, by contrast, would require the data collection on all traffic stops.

“Racial profiling is not just about who gets tickets. It’s about who gets pulled over,” said Rahsaan Hall, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts’s racial justice program. “When we don’t capture the data on all of the stops, we don’t have a full picture of what’s happening. . . . What they put forward is a good start, and we look forward to what comes out in the end. But it has to include the collection of data including all stops.”

Hall also took issue with a House provision that allows the data to be destroyed after three years, arguing it will prevent deeper analysis of the issue over time.

Representative Chynah Tyler, a Roxbury Democrat, filed an amendment that would have expanded the House’s bill scope to include “any and all traffic stops, searches, and frisks by a police officer.” But her measure was later scaled back, and passed, to direct the state to instead study expanding its data collection.

House leaders defended their approach, saying they were trying to balance an administrative burden on police and the desire to beef up the state’s ability to track the data. The House’s profile measure is similar to rules that were passed in 2000, but only required tracking for a short period. The new proposal would require annual analysis by the state.

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“This is a difficult issue, of course, to balance,” Representative William M. Straus, the House chair of the Committee on Transportation, said on the House floor. “There is no doubt a serious justice issue that is wider than just traffic stops. . . . But all the ways in which the police interact with the public call for a wider discussion.”

James Machado, executive director of the Massachusetts Police Association, which lobbies on behalf of law enforcement, said the House’s version would limit the amount of paperwork and analysis police departments must conduct themselves. But he still has concerns about how the data will be used. He wondered how, for example, police departments will be judged if officers can’t determine a motorist’s race.

“If I put ‘N/A,’ is that going to be looked at negatively?” he said, adding that the ambiguity makes him unsure whether he supports the bill. “I don’t want to say yes, if that’s going to be looked at negatively.”

Machado stressed that the hands-free portion of the bill will have a major public safety benefit, helping officers better enforce the existing texting and driving ban because it will prevent motorists outright from holding a phone while behind the wheel.

Stein, the anti-distracted-driving activist, said she’s hopeful that the House and Senate will have an easier time reaching a compromise because both chambers seemingly agree that the bill should include measures to guard against profiling to some degree. It was more difficult to bridge the gap, she said, when it was unclear whether a House version would even address the issue.

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She encouraged the Senate to pass its version and reach an agreement with the House to put the ban into effect quickly.

“With every year or six months that passes and this law isn’t put into effect, we are losing more people,” she said. “In the past five years, I have met too many people who have lost a spouse, a child, a grandchild. It is just devastating.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com.