Hands-Free Bills Gaining Momentum in Mass. Legislature

By Priscilla Liguori 2/24/2016      

Massachusetts may soon require drivers to use hands-free devices while using cell phones. Both the House and the Senate’s bills requiring hands-free devices are picking up momentum in the legislature.

Priscilla Liguori/ WEBN-TV

Priscilla Liguori/ WEBN-TV

“We’ve had a number of accidents, high-profile accidents, including train accidents. It will be a lot safer to be hands-free. It’s for public safety,” said Mike Moynihan, the Legislative Director in the Office of Sen. Mark Montigny.

Distracted driving caused 26% of 30,000 deaths in motor vehicle accidents in 2013, according to the National Safety Council.

“We’re hoping to be able to pass the bill this session. They [the House] would have until July 31 to do this because we have a two-year session,” said Moynihan.

Advocates want the bill passed quickly as well. Moynihan said there had been more advocates than years past at the State House to support the bill. Many of the advocates have lost a loved one in accidents related to cell phones.

Sen. Mark Montigny and Sen. Cynthia Creem are co-sponsors of the Senate’s version of the hands-free bill.

“It is critical for motorist and pedestrian safety that we join the fourteen other states that have already passed similar legislation,” Montigny said in a press release.

Surrounding states in New England have already passed hands-free legislation, including New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Vermont.

The Senate passed its bill Jan. 21 and sent it to the House Committee on Ways and Means. The House’s bill was given initial approval in Nov. 2015.

When both the House and Senate propose bills on the same topic, they may pick one and amend it or send the bills to a conference committee to create a compromise bill.

President of the Safe Roads Alliance Emily Stein said, “The second driving gets ‘boring,’ we have the urge to turn to our phones for entertainment. If the hands-free bill was enacted tomorrow, think of those thousands of drivers who might be more focused on the road. That will save lives and prevent thousands of injuries in our state.”

Moynihan and Stein agree that a bill requiring hands-free devices would make it easier for police officers to enforce the texting ban enacted in 2010.

Priscilla Liguori/ WEBN-TV

Priscilla Liguori/ WEBN-TV

“An officer might see someone driving and tapping away at their phone, but the driver might be dialing a number, or plugging in a GPS location, and under the current law, these are not illegal. Are they safe? Absolutely not,” said Stein.

The bill is also meant to help people outside of vehicles.

“Not only will it protect motorists, but it will also make our roads safer for bicyclists and pedestrians by ensuring that drivers are paying attention to the road, and not to their cellphone,” said Creem in a press release.

In the current draft of the Senate’s bill, drivers would be fined $100 their first offense, $250 for a second, and $500 for a third or subsequent time. Drivers would have to take a distracted-driving class for repeat offenses.

The House’s bill proposed by Representative William Straus does not yet list punishments for offenses.

“If and when the hands-free bill goes into effect, increased enforcement must be accompanied by increased education. People need to know not only about which hands-free devices are acceptable. For example, two ear buds are not allowed, but an ear bud in one ear is ok,” said Stein.

Some people don’t think hands-free legislation is enough to stop completely distracted drivers.

“I think talking with hands-free communication device is definitely less dangerous than a handheld device,” said Tyler LeBlanc, 26, of Jamaica Plain. “But I still think you shouldn’t be talking on the phone while driving.”

Stein said that “hands-free is not risk-free” because conversation is still distracting.

“The only way to be fully aware of your surroundings is to be fully present behind the wheel. This means to silence your phone, put it away where you can’t reach it, and just focus eyes and mind on the road,” Stein said.

Robert J. Nicholas III, 18, of Tewksbury, thinks the car is the best place to make phone calls but still is unsure about the legislation.

“I’m on the fence. I know I can handle driving while talking on the phone perfectly, but I don’t trust other people,” said Nicholas.

The National Safety Council said that one in four crashes involved cell phone use.

Moynihan admits that the people who oppose the bill may include those who cannot afford to upgrade to newer hands-free devices.

“A lot of people with newer technology have it built into their automobiles,” said Moynihan. “Those with older technology may not want to make the change as quickly.

Drivers with newer cars can speak on the phone by the press of a button on their dashboard. Those with older vehicles must buy Bluetooth devices that can range from $15-$100.