By Bob Katzen
A bill that would prohibit drivers from using a hand-held cellphone or other electronic device to make a call or access social media is still tied up in a conference committee that has spent more than three months trying to hammer out a compromise version of the measure. The House 152-0 approved its version of the bill on May 15. The Senate approved a different version on June 6.
A conference committee was appointed by House Speaker Bob DeLeo (D-Winthrop) and Senate President Karen Spilka (D-Ashland) on June 10. The committee is charged with hammering out a compromise version of the bill to which a majority of the committee agrees. The compromise measure is then sent to the House and Senate for consideration and like all conference committee reports in recent Massachusetts legislative history, except one, is approved by both branches and then sent to the governor for his signature, amendment or veto.
The members of the conference committee are Reps. Bill Straus (D-Mattapoisett); Joe Wagner (D-Chicopee); and Tim Whelan (R-Brewster);and Sens. Joseph Boncore (D-Winthrop); William Brownsberger (D-Belmont); and Dean Tran (R-Fitchburg).
Use of a hand-held phone would be permitted in some emergencies but the definition of emergencies differs in each version.
Violators in both versions would be fined $100 for a first offense, $250 for a second offense and $500 for a third offense and subsequent offenses. Under the House version, a violation would not count as a surchargeable offense that could lead to higher insurance rates for the violator. The Senate version counts a third and subsequent offense as a surchargeable one. In addition, the Senate version would require second-time offenders to complete a program selected by the registrar of motor vehicles that “encourages a change in driver behavior and attitude about distracted driving.”
Another key difference in the bills is how police officers would track and collect demographic data when they pull drivers over. The data is mainly collected to uncover any bias or discrimination. The House version would require police officers to track only stops that end in a citation issued to a driver. The Senate version calls for tracking of all stops regardless of outcome. Some observers say the question of who would analyze the data is one of the issue holding up the conference committee.
“Every day hands-free legislation is further delayed puts us all at risk, said Rich Levitan, CEO of TextLess Live More, the chief organization advocating for the bill. “Given the distracted driving epidemic on our roads, we fear it’s only a matter of time before another life is lost in the commonwealth. It is beyond time for Chairs Boncore and Straus to resolve final language issues and get this legislation on Gov. Baker’s desk this month. Further delay is unconscionable.”
Beacon Hill Roll Call asked all six members of the conference committee, the Senate president, the House speaker and a few other legislators to comment on the delay and explain the reason for it. Only three of them answered. And none offered any new information or insight.
“This bill continues to be a top priority of the Massachusetts State Senate, and I am hopeful that it will be completed soon,” said Senate President Karen Spilka (D-Ashland).
“The Senate’s commitment to safer roadways, for motorists and pedestrians alike, is steadfast,” said conference committee member Boncore. “The Senate has passed this bill in previous sessions, and I look forward to continue collaborating with my House colleagues to ensure it becomes law.”
“I’ve been filing this bill since 2004 and it is difficult to come to grips with the number of lives we could have saved if we had acted with decisive action from the start,” said Sen. Mark Montigny (D-New Bedford), the chief proponent of the bill in the Senate. “During that time we’ve built the consensus that driving while distracted is dangerous, it is not a harmless habit that we should tolerate. My bill passed in the Senate the previous two sessions only to die in the House and I’m very disappointed that an agreement has not been reached this session. The sooner we pass this legislation the sooner we begin to prevent the death, injury and damage that distracted driving causes.”
Supporters of the bill say it would save lives and prevent accidents. They note 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.
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.
“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) when the House debated the bill in May. “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.” Durant is one of the two members of the House who voted against the measure.
Here is how local legislators voted on the bill. (A “Yes” vote is for the bill. A “No” vote is against it.)
Rep. Christine Barber Yes Rep. Mike Connolly Yes Rep. Denise Provost Yes Sen. Patricia Jehlen Yes