THERE IS NEAR UNIVERSAL agreement that distracted driving is a menace in Massachusetts. And it’s not a complicated problem to solve.
There ought to be a law, right? Legislative leaders and the governor agree.
And yet . . . for more than three months a bill aimed at ridding the roads of that problem has remained in a legislative conference committee, the victim of a level of my-way-or-the-highway stubbornness that knows no bounds.
Back in 2010 the state banned texting while driving along with any cellphone use while driving by those 18 and under. But the law is largely unenforceable as long as holding a cellphone behind the wheel remains legal. This year a bill to ban the use of virtually all handheld devices while driving passed 155-2 in the House and 40-0 in the Senate.
But the two bills are slightly different — thus the impasse. The sticking point has been the collection of data on those traffic stops as a way to head off use of the ban to target minority drivers. The House wanted to require law enforcement to track only those stops that resulted in citations being issued. The Senate wanted police to report demographic data on every stop and make it publicly available.
A compromise was reportedly reached July 31 but died before the ink was even dry. Safe-driving advocates are blaming Senate President Karen Spilka for scuttling the compromise, and their frustration is growing.
“If the House language [on distracted driving] had passed in 2009, all of our loved ones still would be with us,” said Emily Stein, head of the Safe Roads Alliance, who lost her father in 2011 to a distracted driver.
The Legislature’s inability to get this done “is just getting to be irresponsible,” she added.
Spilka met with the highway safety advocates and a representative from Boston Children’s Hospital on Sept. 18, but they left unsatisfied.
“She said they want to get this done, but she couldn’t answer when or how,” Stein said.
Last week House Speaker Robert DeLeo tried to break the logjam by suggesting lawmakers could split the bill — passing the sections that deal directly with the ban on the use of hand-held devices and leaving the contentious data collection for a separate piece of legislation.
“Although both sides are working to a resolution, I think that should that resolution not take place within a reasonable period of time, then I think we ought to start thinking about splitting up the bill to make sure that, at the very least, we get the hands-free portion done,” DeLeo said.
Spilka, in an interview on WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio,” pushed back, saying, “There’s over 15 civil rights organizations that have been urging us to stay with the data collection, and since it’s a priority in both branches, we should be able to sit down and get the job done, and we are very close.”
What constitutes “very close” or “a reasonable period of time” for a bill stalled since July 31 is anyone’s guess.
There is a school of thought that some data collection actually encourages better enforcement. But there’s also a point where the inability of lawmakers to reach agreement simply allows a real danger to public safety to continue unabated.
With the implementation of Maine’s distracted driving bill last week, Massachusetts — yes, progressive Massachusetts — became the only New England state without a hands-free driving law.
That should be a source of enormous embarrassment on Beacon Hill. And if embarrassment is what it takes to get things done, well, then so be it.