The Massachusetts Legislature is poised to soon pass a ban on the use of hand-held devices while driving, moving legislation that has languished for years on Beacon Hill to the cusp of Governor Charlie Baker’s desk.
The House is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a compromise version of a bill that could dramatically reshape driving habits on Massachusetts roadways and, following months of negotiations, require the collection of data on the race and gender of those given tickets or written warnings on all offenses.
Motorists would have to use their phone in “hands-free mode,” such as through a Bluetooth device, and the law allows for a “single tap or swipe” to activate it or deactivate it. Drivers would also be allowed to look at a GPS device that is mounted to the car’s windshield, dashboard, or center console as long as it does “not impede the operation of the motor vehicle,” according to a copy of the legislation released Monday by a legislative committee.
But it explicitly bans drivers from holding any mobile electronic device, meaning the days of motorists legally holding a phone to their ear while the other hand is on the wheel would be done. The move, in part, is an effort to spur enforcement of the ban on texting while driving that lawmakers passed in 2010.
The bill would inpose stiff penalties for those caught repeatedly tapping at a phone while driving in non-emergency situations: $100 for a first offense; $250 for a second; and $500 for third and subsequent infractions, which would also be considered a surchargeable incident on a motorist’s driving record.
“It’s a cultural change that we need, and this is a good step in the right direction,” Emily Stein, president of the Safe Roads Alliance, said of the bill.
The legislation also would require the Registry of Motor Vehicles to collect data, including a person’s race, gender, and age, from all citations issued, and for the state’s secretary of public safety to produce an annual public report that includes an “aggregate analysis” of the data.
It’s expected to pass the House on Tuesday, and the Senate plans to take it up Wednesday.
Baker, who will have 10 days to act on the legislation once it reaches him, has publicly backed a ban on hand-held cellphone use while driving. The new law would take effect 90 days after it’s passed.
But while safe-driving advocates hailed the legislation, the data collection provisions were panned by activists who are concerned that racial minorities could be unfairly targeted by police as the state tightened its driving laws.
The language has been at the center of long-stalled negotiations within a six-person legislative committee, which had for months failed to reach agreement after the House and Senate passed different versions of the bill in the spring.
Under the bill that emerged Monday, if the data collected by the state “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, according to the bill. The department would also have to undergo mandated “implicit bias” training.
Any raw data, however, won’t be released by the state unless an entity signs a written confidentiality agreement with the state’s public safety secretary, according to the bill.
The detail was part of a compromise between House leaders, who had wanted a provision requiring that data be destroyed after three years, and Senate leaders, who wanted the state to collect traffic data from all stops — not just those that end in tickets or warnings.
Representative William M. Straus, the House’s lead negotiator, defended the language, pointing specifically to the Census Bureau’s recent request to states, in response to an order from President Trump, for driver’s licenses records in arguing for tighter protection of data.
“We should be vigilant that it’s not just well-minded research entities but arms of the national government that is looking for this information,” said Straus, who stressed the importance of passing the bill for its targeting of distracted driving.
“This change in the law will certainly make the roads safer,” he said.
But groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, criticized several aspects of it, including the restriction on making raw data public. Rahsaan Hall, director of the ACLU’s racial justice program, called it a “case of one step forward, two steps back.”
“The constraints that they place on the distribution of the data is an overreach,” he said Monday.
Other advocates also questioned the decision not to require collecting data for all stops. Former state Representative Byron Rushing, once the House’s assistant majority leader, said Monday he wouldn’t vote for the bill’s “mushy language” if he were still in the Legislature.
“You’ve got to be able to record the race of people you stop and let go. And we’ve always said that, over and over and over again,” said Rushing, who before losing reelection in 2018 was among the Legislature’s staunchest voices for addressing racial profiling. “It’s not enough to know who you give citations to.”
At least 20 other states have banned hand-held phone use by all drivers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And at least 21 require the collection of demographic information for motor vehicle stops as of last year, according to the organization.
New laws targeting distracted driving have stoked fears it could allow police to disproportionately target minorities in other states, including Florida, where lawmakers in the spring passed a bill toughening the state’s prohibition on texting while driving.
Similar to Massachusetts’s current seat belt law, texting-while-driving was considered a secondary offense in Florida, meaning a driver couldn’t be expressly pulled over for it. While now allowing police to stop and ticket for texting, the new law also includes a provision requiring police record the race and ethnicity of drivers that receive a citation.
But concerns remained. State data tracking Florida’s seat belt law, for example, showed black drivers were ticketed for violations at far higher rates than the black population of a city would suggest, according to an analysis by the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
In Massachusetts, advocates have pointed to a 2004 state-sponsored study conducted by Northeastern University, which found that 249 of the 341 police departments studied — or roughly three quarters — had significant disparities in either ticketing or searching of minority motorists.