THE SENATE WAYS AND MEANS Committee unanimously endorsed legislation on Thursday banning handheld cell phone use by drivers and requiring law enforcement to collect racial data on every traffic stop.
The full Senate will take up the bill in one week, on May 9, according to Senate President Karen Spilka’s office. There has been momentum in both the House and the Senate behind efforts to ban the dangerously distracting use of cell phones by drivers, but similar momentum has fizzled in the past.
One major sticking point has been whether and how to address the problem of racial profiling. Some lawmakers contend that banning handheld cell phone use would have little effect on racial profiling by police, but others argue that any bill granting police more power to make traffic stops should also take steps to prevent racial profiling.
Under the Senate Ways and Means bill, police officers would need to record the perceived race and ethnicity of every driver stopped and document whether the vehicle was searched, what was found, and whether the traffic stop resulted in a warning, citation, arrest, or other action. Backers of the legislation say that type of data collection could provide a window into the extent of racial profiling that occurs, and help prevent it from happening. Data from around the country indicate black drivers are more likely to be stopped and ticketed than white drivers.
Last session, the Senate went along with Jamaica Plain Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz’s proposal for that type of data collection, but the bill died. The House has not previously adopted the racial-profiling provision passed by the Senate.
The Ways and Means bill prohibits drivers from any type of touching or holding of a cell phone except when necessary in an emergency, and it would establish an escalating set of fines rising from $100 for a first offense, to $250 for a second offense, and $500 for subsequent offenses. A third offense of the handheld phone ban would be a surcharge-able incident, meaning offenders’ insurance bills could go up because of it.
The bill would also direct the Registry of Motor Vehicles to mount an annual public awareness campaign about the dangers of distracted driving – which has killed people in Massachusetts and across the country.
The distracted driving bill won the support of 14 committee members. No member voted against it, but Sens. Vinny deMacedo of Plymouth and Ryan Fattman of Webster, both Republicans, participated in the committee poll but declined to take a position for or against the bill. Their colleague in the Republican caucus, Sen. Don Humason of Westfield, voted in support of it.