Sen. Lesser Votes to Pass Hands-Free Driving Bill

“Distracted driving is a real and growing problem and it is costing people’s lives,” said Sen. Lesser

BOSTON — On Thursday, Senator Eric P. Lesser voted to pass a bill requiring hands-free use of cell phones while driving, citing an increase in fatal car accidents due to distracted drivers.

The bill (S. 2198), sponsored by Senator Mark Montigny (D-New Bedford), prohibits anyone operating a vehicle from viewing video content or touching or holding a mobile electronic device. Under the bill, drivers are allowed to perform a single tap or swipe to activate or deactivate hands-free mode or a navigation app or device like a GPS.

“Distracted driving is a real and growing problem and it is costing people’s lives. One out of every five fatal car crashes in 2015 was due to a distracted driver, and it’s time that drivers understand that the text can wait, the phone call can wait,” said Sen. Lesser.

The bill allows an exception so that a driver can handle their cellphone in an emergency. Public safety officials and first responders are exempt from the ban while actively performing their duties, and bus drivers are prohibited from using mobile devices except in cases of emergency.

Connecticut, New Hampshire and New York all have similar bans on the books. After New Hampshire passed a similar law, it saw fatal car accidents due to distracted driving drop from 16 deaths in 2015 to just two in 2016.

At least 46 states have banned texting while driving for all drivers and 16 states currently ban the use of handheld devices for all drivers.

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.

Fines for violating the ban on hand-held cellphone use while driving start at $100 for a first offense and increase to $250 for a second offense and $500 for a third offense. Subsequent violations would be considered surchargeable offenses for calculating insurance costs.

In response to concerns about racial profiling in traffic stops, the Senate bill requires police officers to include racial and ethnicity data about the drivers they stop in their traffic stop reports. Police agencies would be responsible for collecting and submitting this data to the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, which is tasked with monitoring enforcement.

The House has passed a different bill addressing the issue of hands-free cell phone use while driving. The two bills must now be negotiated between the chambers before a final bill is sent to the Governor.

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Eric Lesser