Driver hand-held cellphone ban moves closer to becoming law

BOSTON — A bill that would bar Massachusetts drivers from using hand-held cellphones behind the wheel has moved one step closer to becoming law.

The Massachusetts Senate on Thursday voted unanimously to approve the bill that would also ramp up the collection of data on traffic stops around the state, after concerns were raised by minority legislators and civil rights advocates that a cellphone law could lead to more racial profiling by law enforcement agencies.

The bill calls for a fine of $100 for a first offense, $250 for a second offense and $500 for a subsequent offense. Those who commit a second or subsequent offense would be required to complete a program that "encourages a change in driver behavior and attitude about distracted driving."

A third or subsequent violation would also be a considered a surchargeable incident under car insurance policies. The bill would allow an exception to using cellphones in the case of an emergency if no one else in the car is able to make the call.

Massachusetts House lawmakers approved their version of the bill last month on a 155-2 vote.

Massachusetts currently bars texting while driving and all cellphone use by junior drivers under age 18.

Democratic Sen. Joseph Boncore, co-chair of the Transportation Committee, said distracted driving claims about 3,000 lives a year in the United States, according to federal statistics.

"Holding the phone for any reason - making or receiving a text, making or receiving a phone call, browsing the web or any other behavior with an electronic device - is strictly prohibited" under the bill, Boncore said during the Senate debate. "The phone does not need to be in your hands."

Families who lost loved ones to accidents caused by drivers distracted by cellphones trekked to the Statehouse to press for the legislation.

The bill also requires police to collect data for each stop made by police, whether or not the stop results in a citation. The data to be collected includes the reason for the stop, the perceived race or ethnicity of the driver, the gender and age of the driver and whether a search of the vehicle was conducted.

Democratic Sen. Cynthia Creem said it's important to gather the data to get a fuller picture of who is getting stopped by law enforcement.

"The point of this is to make sure that stops are not being done in a discriminatory way," Creem said.

The Senate bill differs from the House version which stops short of requiring the collection of racial data on all stops. Instead the House bill requires that data on the race of drivers who are stopped and issued citations or written warnings for traffic infractions be collected and submitted annually to state public safety officials.

If the data collected indicates possible racial profiling by a police department, the House bill would require that law enforcement agency to record racial information on all traffic stops - including those that do not result in a warning or citation - for one year.

The Senate and House must now reach agreement on a compromise bill.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has also proposed a hand-held cellphone ban.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have such laws, according to the Governor's Highway Safety Bureau

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