By Bob Katzen

The Massachusetts Senate 40-0, approved a bill that would prohibit drivers from using a hand-held cellphone or other electronic device to make a call or access social media. The measure allows drivers to use only a hands-free phone but allows him or her to perform a single tap or swipe to activate or deactivate the hands-free mode feature. Use of a hand-held phone would be permitted in emergencies including if emergency service is necessary for the safety of the operator, a passenger or a pedestrian; and if police intervention is necessary due to a motor vehicle being operated in a manner that poses a threat to the safety of travelers on the roadway or to pedestrians.

Violators would be fined $100 for a first offense,$250 for a second offense and $500 for a third offense and subsequent offenses. A third offense would count as a surchargeable offense that could lead to higher insurance rates for the violator.

Supporters said that the bill would save lives and prevent accidents. They noted that the measure does not ban cellphone use but simply requires the use of hands-free ones. They pointed to accidents, deaths and injuries involving handheld cellphones.

Although no one voted against the bill, some opponents say that the restriction is another example of government intrusion into people’s cars and lives. Others note that there are already laws on the books prohibiting driving while distracted and that the bill is a bonanza for insurance companies which will collect millions of dollars in surcharges.

“Studies on the effectiveness of hands-free vs. handheld cellphone operation of a motor vehicle are inconclusive at best,” said Rep. Peter Durant (R-Spencer), one of the two members who voted against a similar measure when it was up for a vote in the House a few weeks ago. “The real culprit in distracted driving is texting, which was already banned in 2010 but are still at staggeringly high levels. This bill doesn’t solve the problem of distracted driving and we could have used the money spent in this bill to provide better public awareness of the dangers and consequences of texting and driving.”

“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 Sen. Mark Montigny (D-New Bedford). The chief proponent of the bill in the Senate. “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.”

The House has approved a different version of the bill and a conference committee will work out the differences.

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