DISTRACTED DRIVING HAS become an “epidemic,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack told lawmakers on Thursday, pushing for a policy package that she said would make motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians safer.
Gov. Charlie Baker’s bill would allow police to pull over drivers for failing to wear a seat belt, ban handheld phone use by drivers, and provide a statutory framework to allow for electric scooters and electric pedal-assist bicycles on roadways.
The legislation has generated some controversy, with some advocates saying that any bill giving police additional powers to pull people over should also include some measures to curb racial profiling by law enforcement.
Supporters of the governor’s bill, and of other bills to crack down on distracted driving, say they oppose racial profiling and want to make sure it doesn’t occur, but they don’t want those concerns to prevent the bill’s passage.
Rep. Paul Tucker, a Salem Democrat and former police chief, said during Thursday’s hearing that he hopes to begin discussions about racial profiling early this session but he suggested legislation that cleared the Senate last session – which would require police to record the race and other information about every person stopped – is a non-starter.
“I would just urge that early on we have that tough conversation about the racial profiling piece,” Tucker said. “Last term there was some language that was put forward that I found not only unworkable but very impractical. My fear is we’ll be back here two years from now if we don’t have those conversations now.”
The Baker administration has deferred to the Legislature to come up with an answer that alleviates concerns about racial profiling. State Police already collect information on the race of drivers stopped, and Pollack said electronic ticketing makes it easier to facilitate additional information about traffic stops.
“The good news is if the Legislature can forge a consensus on what appropriate additional information people feel it is important to collect when a citation is given to a motorist, the methodology for adding that collection is much simpler than it would have been years ago,” Pollack said.
Unlike Pollack, Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, doesn’t want the distracted driving bill to pass unless it includes a provision for police to collect data on the race of those pulled over for traffic stops. He thinks the bill the Senate passed last session should be the starting point.
“As much as everyone has said that racial profiling is a concern, it never seems to get the level of energy and support that it rightly deserves. Because racial profiling has very real consequences when you think about the number of black people who have been killed by law enforcement pursuant to a traffic stop,” Hall said.
Hall said he didn’t know why Tucker thought the data collection provision in the Senate bill would be unworkable. Hall is black, and he said that makes it more likely for him to receive scrutiny from police.
“I don’t know specifically why it would be impractical or unworkable from his perspective, but I know for a fact that when I leave this building I have a much higher chance of being stopped than any of the people who are sitting in that room,” Hall said just outside the committee room.
Thursday’s hearing brought out Bruce Landsberg, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, who advocated for legislation giving police the ability to pull over drivers for seat belt violations, a ban on all handheld cell phone use, and required alcohol ignition interlock devices for everyone recently convicted of drunken driving. The devices prevent people from driving if they have unacceptable blood-alcohol levels.
“The seat belt is absolutely the best way of protecting yourself in a crash,” Landsberg told reporters.
A ban on any sort of non-emergency handheld cellphone use by drivers would expand upon the 2010 ban on texting while driving that has been criticized as too difficult to enforce.
Rep. Paul Donato, a Medford Democrat who is a member of House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s leadership team, said the proposed ban on handheld cellphone use by motorists has become more popular as lawmakers have witnessed the dangers of distracted driving.
Donato believes the chances are good for the distracted driving bill to become law.
“I think this is the session it’s going to happen,” Donato said.