BOSTON - A bill that seeks to curb distracted driving by prohibiting motorists from holding their cellphones while behind the wheel cleared the Massachusetts Senate on Thursday.
The measure - already law in 14 other states - faces a less certain future in the House.
Under the bill, motorists could only use their cellphones, or other electronic devices such as GPSs, with hands-free technology. It also would be illegal to access social media, make video calls or use any camera function while driving.
The proposal makes exceptions for certain emergency calls and would allow for a single touch or swipe to activate a hands-free mechanism.
Penalties under the bill would be the same as those already in place under the current state law that bans texting while driving: $100 for a first offense, $250 for a second offense and $500 for a third offense, with the third violation also bringing an automobile insurance surcharge.
Supporters of the bill rejected suggestions of unwarranted government intrusion into people's private business.
"There is no argument on the other side, other than if you want to make the libertarian argument that government should stay away and let people do what they want," said Sen. Mark Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat. "That's fine, except when you are driving a multi-thousand pound killing machine and the innocent folks are the ones that usually get hurt or die."
The bill aims at one of the leading causes of distracted driving, which according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration claimed nearly 3,500 lives in the U.S. in 2015.
The measure passed on a voice vote and no senator argued against its passage. But some Democrats, including Democratic Sen. Michael Barrett, suggested the proposed fines would place an unfair burden on low-income residents.
"If you are poor and your car is a little older, you should still avoid distracted driving but these fees are going to hit you very hard," said Barrett, whose amendment to lower the progression of fines to $50, $100 and $150 was defeated on a 26-12 vote.
Similar legislation cleared the Senate during the last two-year session but never came up for a final vote in the House. A spokesman for Democratic House Speaker Robert DeLeo would only say Thursday the current bill would be "reviewed" as it went through the legislative process.
Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, through a spokesman, said he appreciated the Legislature's efforts to update the state's distracted driving laws and promised to "carefully review" any bill that reached his desk.
Many motorists appeared supportive of tougher cellphone laws.
"I see too many drivers on a daily basis who are texting and talking on their phones," said Stewart Vaughn, a Chatham resident who was in Boston with his son to attend a Red Sox game. "I'm normally not one for more rules and regulations but I am for that one because I've almost gotten slammed a few times."
While some at a rest stop along the Massachusetts Turnpike were reluctant to discuss their own habits while driving, Vanilda Passos said she was already using a hands-free Bluetooth device. Even with that, she did not feel totally safe from distraction.
"Not 100 percent," the Lancaster resident said. "I don't like to use it."
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