• Fed up with inaction on hands-free driving bill, advocates ramp up pressure

    By: Chris Lisinski , State House News Service

    Updated:

    BOSTON - Supporters of long-sought driving safety legislation are trying to increase the pressure on lawmakers as the widely popular bill remains stalled in private negotiations.

    Families who lost loved ones to distracted-driving crashes plan to meet with Senate President Karen Spilka on Wednesday, where they will press for information on why the legislation passed by both branches remains in conference committee limbo, according to Emily Stein, president of the Safe Roads Alliance.

    If no resolution comes soon, advocacy groups will hold a press conference on Sept. 26 to highlight the toll from a gap in state law that allows widespread use of electronic devices behind the wheel to continue.

    "It is extraordinarily frustrating," Stein told the News Service. "There's a lack of transparency. It seems there's a lack of honesty. Everybody I've spoken with has said very clearly, 'this is a priority for us and we want to see this passed.' So why hasn't it passed?"

    The legislation, which would require phones and similar technology to be used in hands-free mode while driving, had passed in the Senate two lawmaking sessions in a row but never came up for a vote in the House.

    That changed this session, when Gov. Charlie Baker prioritized the topic and the legislation sailed through 155-2 in the House and 40-0 in the Senate.

    But a six-member, Democrat-controlled conference committee has been unable to come to a resolution on the differences between the versions — the biggest being how to collect and publish demographic data at traffic stops — after nearly three months of private negotiations.

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    The lawmakers involved in the process offered varying explanations Tuesday.

    Rep. William Straus and Sen. Joseph Boncore, the Transportation Committee chairs who are leading the conferees, told the News Service that members remain in touch.

    "This bill remains a priority of the committee to get done and see through to legislation," Boncore said after a committee meeting. "I know we continue to talk. We want to see it done."

    They declined to offer any specific information, though, about how the private discussions are going or whether they are again approaching a deal after an "agreement in principle" collapsed on July 31.

    That sense of communication is not shared by every single member. Sen. Dean Tran, one of two Republicans on the conference, wrote to the committee last week asking them to relaunch their discussions and find a resolution soon.

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    He told the News Service that he has not received a response and that, in fact, the committee "did not meet at all in the month of August" during a traditional legislative recess. Tran said he has not been involved in any remote correspondence with other members since the July 31 breakdown.

    "We are still discussing the bill, and I know all the conferees are working very hard, especially the chairmen," Tran said. "But by the same token, it's taken too long. This bill should have been passed before the recess."

    The other Republican involved, Rep. Timothy Whelan, offered a different account. He said members have "been in regular contact by phone and one-on-one meetings" in recent weeks.

    It also remains unclear whether either side has shifted since a disagreement over wording doomed a draft bill.

    On July 31, the three representatives signed off on a compromise version that would have followed House language on data collection and Senate language on insurance surcharges — and Straus said the document was vetted by legal counsel in both branches — and left it in the House clerk's office.

    But their colleagues never signed, and Boncore said the next day that no final agreement on "language" had been reached.

    Whelan said Tuesday that he still believes the parties reached a final consensus and that the version the House members signed is the one that should be passed, echoing remarks Straus made last month.

    "I'm waiting on our friends over in the upper chamber," Whelan said. "I'm waiting to hear. The House, we're in agreement with the language already."

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    Tran, meanwhile, said Tuesday he was not even aware that the draft bill had been left in the House clerk's office and that he spent the long, late-night July 31 session waiting for the language — which he "found to be acceptable" and would have signed — to make its way to the Senate.

    The Legislature first weighed a bill that would have banned virtually all device use while driving except for hands-free modes a decade ago, but ultimately passed a law in 2010 specifically outlawing sending and receiving electronic communications while driving, the so-called texting while driving ban.

    However, because the law technically still allowed motorists to use navigation tools or dial a phone, police quickly found it difficult to prove that someone was texting or emailing. In a letter to conferees last month, the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association called the existing law "unenforceable."

    Both MCOPA and Stein suggested the conference committee break the language in question into two bills. Doing so, they said, would allow lawmakers to pass a straightforward ban on device use and continue debate on data collection without holding up the public-safety aspects of the proposal.

    "Enough is enough," Stein said. "We've been waiting a decade for this, and I know they want the bill to be really good and they want it to be enforceable, but we don't want to wait any longer."

    The conference committee's other two members, Rep. Joseph Wagner and Sen. William Brownsberger, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

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