Supporters of hands-free cellphone bill want answers for stall

BOSTON — Frustrated with state lawmakers after three months of delays passing a hands-free cellphone bill, a group of advocates is taking action.

A handful of people who have lost loved ones to distracted driving met with Senate president Karen Spilka on Wednesday to get answers as to why legislation is stalling. But they didn't get many.

“We keep hearing that this is a priority of the Senate, but we need to see that it's a priority, we are tired of hearing it, we want a bill delivered to the governor's desk,” said Emily Stein, president of Safe Roads Alliance.

Stein’s father, Howard Stein, was killed in 2011 by a distracted driver checking their phone’s GPS. She and her supporters have pushed lawmakers to finally pass a hands-free bill for cell phones and other electronic devices.

Right now, there’s only a ban on texting while driving and for younger drivers.

“I was very moved by the stories shared today," Spilka said. "This bill has been and continues to be a top Senate priority. I am very hopeful it will be resolved soon.”

Massachusetts is now the only state in New England that doesn't have a hand-held cellphone ban for all drivers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A new law requiring only hands-free cellphone use while driving just took effect in Maine Thursday.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 3,450 people across the country died by distracted-related crashes in 2016 -- 45 of them were killed in Massachusetts, per AAA Northeast.

"This is just too important, every day that goes by you’re risking people's lives," said Joann Arsenault, a Pepperell resident in support of the bill.

One section of the bill under consideration calls for collecting data on race for those warned or cited for violating the bill -- a provision that may be halting the bill from passing.

"If the data collection, racial profiling piece of this continues to hold back a public safety bill that could be enacted tomorrow, we need to start thinking about separating the issues,” Stein said.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is fighting the bill, saying the data collection proposal lacks transparency.

In a statement, Rahsaan Hall, racial justice director at the ACLU of Massachusetts said, "Personal privacy and government transparency are critical to our democracy. That is why the ACLU urged the legislature to pass a version of the bill that requires data collection about race and traffic stops and makes that data available to the public -- without identifying individual drivers. Unfortunately the version filed by the House Committee contains a perverse, anti-public records provision that runs counter to government transparency and disclosure.”

Supporters of the bill are planning a news conference for Sept. 26 to continue pressuring lawmakers to pass the bill soon.

They are asking anyone who has been touched by distracted driving to participate.