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Police chiefs back bill cracking down on distracted driving

Police officials in Boston and West Bridgewater on Tuesday backed a bill pending on Beacon Hill that would ban the use of handheld devices behind the wheel.
Police officials in Boston and West Bridgewater on Tuesday backed a bill pending on Beacon Hill that would ban the use of handheld devices behind the wheel.iStock

Police officials in Boston and West Bridgewater, a community that’s made headlines in recent years for crackdowns on distracted driving, on Tuesday backed a bill pending on Beacon Hill that would ban the use of handheld devices behind the wheel.

“Any effort to enhance the safety of motorists and pedestrians is supported by the Boston police,” Boston Police Commissioner William G. Gross said in a statement.

His words were echoed by West Bridgewater Police Chief Victor Flaherty, who said in a phone interview that the measure “is definitely going to save lives” if it becomes law.

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Under terms of the bill, which lawmakers could send to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk in the coming days if the votes line up, 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 mounted to the car’s windshield, dashboard, or center console as long as it does “not impede the operation of the motor vehicle.”

Flaherty said Tuesday that while he supports the bill, he has concerns about the “single tap”
and mounted phone holder provisions.

“How is a law enforcement officer driving past [a motorist] going to be able to see what’s on the [driver’s phone] screen?” Flaherty said, adding that the bill “doesn’t allow you to tap [once] to get on Facebook. How am I going to be able to tell what you’re” accessing via tap “if it’s mounted on your dash from a moving car?”

Flaherty also voiced concerns about a provision that 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 to produce an annual public report that includes an “aggregate analysis” of the information.

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Flaherty noted that his town, which has a low percentage of people of color, borders Brockton, a city with a much higher percentage whose residents frequently drive on main thoroughfares in West Bridgewater.

What if, he said, the data show 20 percent of drivers he cites for using cellphones are people of color, even though a much lower percentage of his residents are in that demographic?

“Is that going to make me appear that I’m gender or racially profiling?” Flaherty said. “I would hate for some annual analyst report to say that ‘it appears that West Bridgewater is engaging’ ” in such behavior. “I don’t really want that cloud to be thrown over us with something that we can’t control.”

Under terms of the bill, if the data collected indicate 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. The department would also have to undergo mandated “implicit bias” training.

Any raw data, however, wouldn’t be released by the state unless an entity signed a written confidentiality agreement with the state’s public safety secretary.

Some advocacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts have criticized the restriction on making raw data public. Rahsaan Hall, director of the ACLU’s racial justice program, on Monday called it a “case of one step forward, two steps back.”

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“The constraints that they place on the distribution of the data is an overreach,” he said.

Flaherty, meanwhile, maintained Tuesday that the bill is “not a tool to use our power for evil. That’s not the case.”

Rather, he said, the bill would “assist us” in making drivers mindful of the consequences “if they have that phone in their hand.”

“We’ll be able to enforce this,” Flaherty said, reiterating that the bill “is going to save lives, no question about it.”


Matt Stout of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.