Massachusetts Senate backs ban on hand-held cellphones while driving

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BOSTON — The state Senate approved a bill Thursday that would require drivers in Massachusetts to put down their cellphones while behind the wheel.

Under the proposed ban on hand-held cellphone use, already in effect in several neighboring states, motorists could only use cellphones with hands-free technology. Exceptions would be made for certain emergency situations.

It also would be illegal under the Senate bill to hold other mobile electronic equipment or enter information by hand into a GPS device.

Fines would range from $100 for the first offense to $500 after three violations.

Massachusetts has banned texting while driving since 2010.

Supporters of the bill, which passed on a voice vote after several hours of discussion, predicted it would save lives by cutting down on distracted driving.

Sen. Mark Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat, acknowledged concerns that any phone conversations while driving could pose a distraction, but called the measure a reasonable middle ground.

"Continue to use your phones but use them in the safest manner possible, which is hands-free," he said.

Some senators, including Lexington Democrat Michael Barrett, argued unsuccessfully for lighter penalties for violators.

"We're coming down with too heavy a hammer," said Barrett.

According to The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,154 people were killed and 424,000 others were injured in the U.S. in crashes involving distracted drivers in 2013, the last full year that statistics were available.

Here are some key things to know about the Senate bill.

What would change?

State law currently bans texting while driving and all cellphone use by drivers under 18. If the bill becomes law, it would be illegal for anyone to hold a cellphone while driving, or even to touch a phone except to push a single button to activate or deactivate a particular function. The bill makes exceptions for emergencies, such as a driver needing medical help or police assistance.

Could you still talk on your phone?

Yes, but only with hands-free technology, such as Bluetooth. Drivers would also be permitted to hold their phones if a vehicle is pulled off the road and stationary.

What about other devices?

The bill covers all mobile electronic devices, not just cellphones. And it specifically prohibits people from inputting information by hand into a GPS navigation device while driving.

What kind of penalties would drivers face?

Drivers would be fined $100 for the first offense and $250 for the second violation. But things would get really costly for third and subsequent violations, which would be considered moving violations and be punishable by both a $500 fine and a surcharge on auto insurance premiums.

How many other states do this?

If the bill becomes law, Massachusetts would join 14 other states that prohibit motorists from holding cellphones, including four of the state's immediate neighbors — Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York.

What happens next?

The House, which last year gave preliminary approval to a similar bill, must vote again. The two chambers would then iron out differences, if any, between the two bills before sending a final measure to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker. While he hasn't taken a formal position on the bill, Baker has signaled support for efforts to make the state's roadways safer.


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