Legislators pass hands-free driving bill

  • Last year, area high school student Andie Hall experienced a virtual crash while texting on her cell phone during a Distractology 101 crash course.   STAFF FILE PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 6/11/2019 10:57:01 PM

Local legislators are embracing a proposed law that would mandate hands-free use of electronic devices and other handheld items while driving.

The Senate and House both voted to pass their respective bills, which went to a joint committee and will now go to a conference committee for reconciliation, before going to the governor for his signature, Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, said.

“Conference is where all of the differences will be ironed out,” she said.

“The Senate added an amendment that would require data collection about how the law is being used,” Comerford said. “We want to track racial data to make sure there aren’t a disproportionate amount of drivers of color being stopped. It makes the bill stronger.”

Comerford said there has been a concern by all in the state Senate about doing more to protect drivers, pedestrians and motorcyclists. 

“There’s a general understanding that drivers should not be looking away from the road,” she said. “This is not about restrictions, it’s about saving lives.” 

Comerford said state leaders will have to decide how such a law will be implemented.

“Distracted driving is an epidemic on our roadways,” Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said. “Every week I drive hundreds of miles across the state, and whether I’m in the Berkshires or in Boston, it’s rare that I don’t see close calls and erratic driving because folks are paying more attention to the screen in their hand than the road in front of them.”

Hinds said using a cellphone while driving creates unnecessary risk and dangerous conditions for drivers, passengers and pedestrians.

“These tragedies are avoidable, and I hope this legislation will improve overall safety for everyone in Massachusetts,” he said.

Comerford said she heard heartbreaking testimony from some of her colleagues while discussing the bill.

“They told personal stories of their families and how they are at the heart of this legislation,” she said. “I felt, at those moments, that we have lost precious lives and there needs to be a call to action.”

Comerford said she agrees with colleagues who have said there has to be responsibility and accountability to all who drive vehicles.

“This is so important,” Comerford said.

If the governor signs the bill, which Comerford said she believes he will, it will put Massachusetts in line with the northeastern states of Connecticut, New Hampshire and New York. 

According to Hinds, 46 states currently ban texting while driving for all drivers, and 14 states ban the use of handheld devices for all drivers.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted driving accounted for 3,450 deaths across the nation in 2016. In 2015, an estimated 400,000 were injured because of distracted driving crashes.

In Franklin County, Laurie Scarbrough, FRCOG transportation planning engineer, said between 2014 and 2016 there were 3,347 crashes reported in the 26 towns and of those, 349, or 10 percent, involved at least one distracted driver. In 2014, 96 of the 349 were reported as a distracted driver, while there were 107 in 2015 and 146 in 2016. One ended in a fatality.

In 2010, the Legislature banned texting while driving, but did not ban the use of handheld devices for talking or other purposes, except for drivers ages 16 and 17. 

According to lawmakers, the law has been difficult to enforce and hands-free technology has improved significantly.

Under the Senate bill, the first offense would bring a $100 and the second a $250 fines. Subsequent offenses would be $500 each. In addition to fines, a driver who commits a second or subsequent offense would be required to complete an educational program on driving behavior selected by the state Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Reach Anita Fritz at
afritz@recorder.com or
413-772-0261, ext. 269.




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