LEGISLATION TO CRACK down on cellphone use by drivers breezed through the Senate on Thursday, setting up a debate with the House over how concerns about racial profiling should be handled before it is sent to the governor.
Before the unanimous vote, members highlighted the tragic stories of parents seated in the gallery who had lost children to car crashes where cellphone distraction appears to have played a deciding factor.
Sen. Paul Feeney spoke about how Jordan Cibley, an 18-year-old from Foxborough was behind the wheel and on the phone with his father in May 2007 when it is believed he dropped the phone, unbuckled his seatbelt to go searching for it, and then fatally slammed into a tree. Jerry Cibley, who was in the Senate gallery Thursday holding a photo of his son, didn’t know what had happened until the police showed up at his door, Feeney said.
“The act that led to his death is all too common,” said Feeney, a Foxborough Democrat.
Advocates for new restrictions that go beyond the state’s 2010 ban on texting by motorists say that modern cellphones pose immense dangers because they can take a driver’s attention away from the road at crucial but unpredictable moments.
As the deliberations kicked off, Sen. Joseph Boncore, a Winthrop Democrat and co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, asked his colleagues to take a step toward curbing the preventable deaths caused by the “tempting distraction” of cellphones.
Sen. Don Humason, a Westfield Republican, described to his colleagues how he had been rear-ended on the Massachusetts Turnpike by a driver who admitted that he had been looking down at a map function on his phone. The crash left Humason with lasting pain in his knees, he said.
Thursday was the third vote the Senate has taken in recent years to pass a ban on the use of handheld cellphones by drivers, according to Senate President Karen Spilka, but there is a far greater chance of the legislation becoming law this time.
The House, which had never before completely endorsed such a ban, passed a similar bill banning handheld phone used by drivers 155-2 in May.
A key difference policy-wise between the two branches’ versions of the legislation is how they treat concerns that police could use the ban as a pretext to engage in racial profiling. Both versions include provisions to collect data on the race of drivers pulled over, but the Senate bill goes further by requiring police to record their perception of the driver’s race for every single traffic stop. The House bill would require police to indicate the race of drivers if they are cited or given a written warning.
On Monday, Gov. Charlie Baker reiterated his support for legislation to keep phones out of drivers’ hands and said questions about who gets stopped and why are “important.”
“Our goal here is to work with them to make sure that whatever the mechanism is that the Legislature ultimately lands on is one that we believe we can faithfully and legitimately implement, because we should,” Baker told reporters.
Police chiefs and those advocating for data collection will be consulted in conjunction with negotiations between the House and Senate over the bill, said Boncore.
“Everyone’s still at the table and hopefully will remain at the table,” Boncore said.
Police chiefs have been wary of the type of data collection the Senate bill proposes, although the State Police already collect racial data on every traffic stop. Sen. Ryan Fattman, a Webster Republican, filed an amendment to scrap the data-collection provision, but the amendment was withdrawn before it could be debated.
While the vote on the bill was unanimous and there was no vote on the data collection specifically, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said there are enduring concerns about that measure.
“There’s still a lot of concern about how that data is collected and how it’s used, and I think this is not the end of that discussion today,” Tarr said after the vote. “Clearly we want to make sure that this law – if it becomes law – is not used for racial profiling. We also want to make sure that we develop a workable system to ensure that racial profiling doesn’t occur. And there is a lot of discussion – I think, yet to be had – about how best to do that.”
Apart from the important policy differences in the House and Senate bills, the branches will also need to decide which legislative paper to use as the vehicle. Rather than amend the bill passed by the House as is the standard custom, the Senate opted for a somewhat different process of passing its own separate bill.