Is this the year the Massachusetts Legislature is finally going to crack down on distracted driving?
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia ban hand-held cellphone use while driving, and it’s long past time for the Commonwealth to join them. Each day, approximately nine Americans are killed in crashes involving distracted driving, and any pedestrian or cyclist can share their own horror stories of close calls.
At a hearing at the State House on Thursday, lawmakers will review an assortment of bills banning hand-held cellphone use while behind the wheel, including one filed by Governor Charlie Baker. Massachusetts passed anti-texting legislation in 2010, but the narrow law is difficult to enforce because, technically, adult drivers are still allowed to dial a number or use the GPS function on their phones, and savvy drivers will just claim they were entering directions, not texting, if they’re pulled over. Under the various proposals to address distracted driving, motorists would be able to use their phones only via a hands-free device, or else they’d be subject to fines of at least $100 for a first offense. (There would be an exception for emergencies.)
The governor’s legislation also deals with another overdue road safety issue: putting teeth into the state’s seat belt law.
For years, efforts to pass these laws have stalled separately in the Legislature over similar concerns about the possibility they could lead to increased racial profiling by giving police another excuse to pull drivers over. Some lawmakers, while agreeing on the need to address distracted driving and enforcement of the seat belt law, flat-out refused to consider bills if they didn’t also include a racial-profiling provision.
It’s a shame these two important goals are being lumped together and then pitted against each other. The stalemate hasn’t led to any less racial profiling, but it has prevented police from responding to an ongoing public safety hazard.
Larry Ellison, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, told Commonwealth Magazine that he doesn’t believe a law cracking down on distracted driving would increase racial profiling. After all, he said, there are already enough laws on the books for cops to choose from if they want to pull someone over.
Racial profiling is a problem of police practices and attitudes, not a function of how many traffic laws are on the books. The Legislature should definitely tighten data collection requirements for police officers when it comes to race and stops, but it shouldn’t hold hostage proposals regarding distracted driving and enforcement of seat belt use.
The state’s road safety stats are nothing to be proud of. While seat belt use in Massachusetts is at a record high, it’s still well below the national average. So far below, in fact, that the state typically ranks near last place in seat belt use (thank goodness for last-place New Hampshire). One suspected reason is that while the state does have a law mandating use of safety belts, which has been on the books since 1994, it’s difficult to enforce. Cops are allowed to issue a seat belt violation only if they pull over a driver for another reason, like a broken taillight or running a red light. Baker’s proposal would give police officers primary enforcement over seat belt violations, meaning drivers could be pulled over for failing to buckle up.
These changes are overdue. The public overwhelmingly supports banning the hand-held use of a cellphone while driving. Many motorists have stories of surviving a terrifying experience involving a fellow driver yakking on their smartphone instead of paying attention to the road, but not everyone has been so lucky. Just ask the family and friends of the 18-year-old Milton teen who was killed by a distracted driver in 2013. Or Jerry Cibley, who became a staunch advocate of banning cellphone use while driving after his son was killed while driving and talking to his dad on the phone. After years of stalling on seat belt and distracted-driving bills, the Legislature ought to give the police the power to save lives.