Massachusetts State Senate Passes Legislation to Prevent Distracted Driving

The Massachusetts State Senate on Thursday unanimously passed An Act Preventing Distracted Driving, which would prohibit the use of handheld mobile devices while driving.

“There are too many heartbreaking stories of those who lost loved ones to distracted driving and I’m proud the Senate has taken action in an effort to prevent future tragedies,” said Senate President Karen Spilka (D-Ashland). The way we communicate with each other has changed, but the government’s fundamental responsibility to public safety has not.”

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted driving accounted for 3,450 deaths in 2016. In the prior year, an estimated 400,000 people suffered from injuries because of distraction-affected crashes.

“Distracted driving is an epidemic on our roadways. Using a cellphone while driving creates unnecessary risk and dangerous conditions that result in injury and loss of life,“ said Transportation Committee Chair Sen. Joe Boncore (D-Winthrop) “Today, the Senate affirmed its long-standing belief that these tragedies are avoidable. This cellphone ban will improve road safety and protect the lives of our loved ones.”

“The Senate’s vote today on the distracted driving bill will advance the safety and wellbeing of motorists and pedestrians alike,” said Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester). “Handheld technology for many has become nearly indispensable; however, conclusive evidence has proven that distracted driving is a danger that can be mitigated.”

Passage of this bill puts Massachusetts in line with the northeastern states of Connecticut, New Hampshire, and New York. Forty-six states currently ban texting while driving for all drivers and fourteen states ban the use of handheld devices for all drivers.

“After fifteen years of filing and tirelessly pushing legislation to ban such dangerous behavior, Beacon Hill is finally ready to end the tragedies occurring on our roadways,” said Senator Mark Montigny (DNew Bedford), referencing his legislative efforts since 2004. “Today, the Senate again passed a strong bill to save lives. We can never truly understand the pain suffered by the families of distracted driving victims, but we certainly owe it to them to put this on the Governor’s desk ASAP.”

“Distracted driving places us all at risk of injury or worse,” said Senate Majority Leader Cynthia S. Creem (D-Newton). “The bill passed by the Senate today to require the use of hands-free devices will save lives and prevent tragedies that were otherwise entirely avoidable.”

In 2010, the legislature banned texting while driving but did not ban the use of handheld devices for talking or other purposes. The 2010 law banned handheld use for 16 and 17-year olds. The law has been difficult to enforce and hands-free technology has improved significantly since the passage of the 2010 law.

The Senate has acted in previous sessions to address these concerns. This bill, which builds upon the 2010 law, would ban drivers from holding and using a cell phone while driving. Drivers, however, can make a single tap or swipe to activate or accept a hands-free call or to use a navigation device. The bill also makes exceptions for phone calls in emergency purposes, such as situations where the safety of the driver, passenger or a pedestrian is at risk or first responder intervention is necessary.

Under the bill, an initial violation results in a $100 fine and second time offense is a $250 fine, while subsequent offenses carry a $500 fine. In addition to fines, a driver who commits a second or subsequent offense is required to complete an educational program on driving behavior selected by the Registrar of Motor Vehicles.

The bill also considers concerns that enforcement of the hands-free ban could lead to disparate impacts, such as racial profiling, in certain communities. It requires law enforcement to document stops and submit aggregate data, including race and ethnicity, to the Department of Public Safety for the production of annual reports to the Legislature and the public.

The Senate and the House will now work to reconcile bills relative to distracted driving prevention.

Sarah Bldogett