BOSTON - Motorists in Massachusetts would be barred from using hand-held cellphones while behind the wheel under legislation approved by the state House on Wednesday.
The proposal passed on a 155-2 vote would also ramp up the collection of data on traffic stops around the state, after concerns were raised by minority legislators and civil libertarians that a cellphone law could lead to more racial profiling by police officers.
House passage of the bill marked a milestone for supporters, as similar legislation has cleared the state Senate in previous years without surfacing for a final vote in the House.
Many drivers from Massachusetts are already familiar with prohibitions on use of hand-held cellphones as they are in effect in the neighboring states of Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.
In all, 18 states and the District of Columbia have such laws, according to the Governor's Highway Safety Bureau.
Massachusetts currently bars texting while driving and all cellphone use by junior drivers under age 18. The measure approved Wednesday would allow drivers a single tap or swipe to activate a hands-free device, such as one that uses Bluetooth. Backers say it will reduce injuries and deaths resulting from distracted driving.
Police have complained the ban on texting is difficult to enforce because officers cannot always distinguish whether a driver is using a phone to text or for some other purpose, such as punching in a phone number or accessing an app.
The principal author of the House bill, Democratic Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, said drivers should be directing their attention to the road, not their phones.
"Reading texts, reading information, reading emails, engaging in social media conversations are prohibited," under the bill, said Straus, co-chair of the Legislature's transportation committee. "The phone doesn't need to be and shouldn't be in your hands."
Relatives of several people who died in accidents caused by distracted drivers watched the debate from the House gallery.
The measure calls for fines of $100 for the first offense, increasing to $500 if a driver is caught three times or more. Language in the bill would provide a grace period of sorts, as police would be allowed to issue only warnings until Jan. 1, 2020, after which fines could be levied.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, said the racial profiling provisions were added to the bill after discussions with members of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus.
The provisions build on a state law in place since 2000 that asks police officers to record the race of drivers who are stopped and issued citations or written warnings for traffic infractions, Straus said. The goal was to determine if blacks or other minorities were being pulled over at rates significantly higher than whites.
The problem, however, is that collection of race data has been spotty and rarely analyzed, he added.
The bill would require the Registry of Motor Vehicles to collect the data from police departments and submit it annually to state public safety officials. The data would then be studied and made public. The bill also calls for the state to study the feasibility of expanding the data collection to include "the race and gender of each individual subject to traffic stops, searches resulting from a traffic stop or frisks resulting from a traffic stop" whether or not a citation is issued.
"The problem with racial profiling is that it impacts all drivers whether or not they receive a citation or a ticket and without getting that information we don't have a full picture," said Rahsaan Hall, director of racial justice for the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Under the legislation, if the data collected indicates possible racial profiling by a police department, that agency will then be required to record racial information on all traffic stops, including those that do not result in a warning or citation, for one year.
Officers would be asked to use their "best judgment and life experience" if they are uncertain of a driver's race, Straus said.
The debate now moves to the Senate, which is scheduled to consider a similar bill June 6.
Republican Gov. Charlie Baker also proposed banning the use of hand-held cellphones.
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