Gov. Baker signs handheld phone ban for Bay State

Gov. Charlie Baker, flanked by lawmakers and transportation officials, signed a bill into law Monday banning all handheld electronics use behind the wheel except when hands-free mode is enabled.

BOSTON — Massachusetts drivers will soon face fines for virtually all cellphone usage behind the wheel after Gov. Charlie Baker signed an anti-distracted driving bill into law Monday.

Starting in three months, motorists will be prohibited from using a handheld electronic device while driving except for a single touch or tap to activate hands-free mode. Voice commands will still be allowed, as will viewing a map on a device mounted to the windshield, dashboard or console, but all other uses are banned.

State law has forbidden texting while driving since 2010, but because other actions such as dialing a phone number were not covered, police have found it difficult to enforce and distracted driving has proliferated.

"When a driver on an electronic device hits something or someone, that's not an accident," Baker said during a crowded signing ceremony in the State House Library, joined by advocates and families of victims killed in collisions. "It's a crash that was avoidable, so this is a very proud day for Massachusetts where we join the other states in New England and do more to help prevent further injuries and horrible tragedies."

The law Baker signed Monday takes effect in 90 days — around Feb. 23 (officials did not have the specific date) — but law enforcement will only issue warnings for violations until March 31. Typing or receiving messages behind the wheel driving will still carry full punishments during that interim span.

Emergency use will be allowed, but drivers would need to prove that the circumstances — such as requiring medical aid or help with a disabled vehicle — warranted the actions.

Motorists will face fines of $100 for a first violation, $250 for a second violation and $500 for every violation after that. Second and subsequent offenses will require drivers to complete a training program, while third and subsequent violations will be surchargeable for insurance purposes.

"I believe that next Thanksgiving, there will be families that will be able to celebrate because we had a safer year next year than we've had this past year," said Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack.

The law also updates existing measures to monitor law enforcement for disproportionate punishment of drivers by requiring the Registry of Motor Vehicles to track the race, age and gender of every motorist at traffic stops that end in citations.

Every year, the state will send that information to an outside entity for a report on whether any law enforcement agency "appears to have engaged in racial or gender profiling." State officials will also publish a separate, anonymized compilation of the data for public review.

Any agency found to have profiled motorists will be required to track demographic data at all stops, not just those ending in citations, for a year and to implement implicit bias training.

The law aims to crack down on an epidemic of distracted driving accelerated by smartphones. AAA's 2018 Traffic Safety Culture Index released in June found that, while driving, about 52 percent of motorists had recently talked on a handheld cellphone, 41 percent had read a message and 32 percent had typed or sent a message.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said during the ceremony that 309 people have died in traffic crashes in Massachusetts this year.

Several safe driving advocates joined Baker at the bill-signing, where they praised it as a welcome development after years of advocacy. At least 16 other states, including every state in New England, already requires hands-free device use while driving.

Emily Stein, president of the Safe Roads Alliance that was among the groups calling for the new law, said the additional restrictions are an important step to reduce the "preventable pain" of distracted driving crashes.

"This law takes the cellphones out of the hands of drivers, so it keeps our streets safer for our children, for everybody who wants to walk across the street, bike on our street or drive," Stein, whose father died in a distracted driving crash, said. "This is not a panacea for road safety, but we all know and are so proud of this bill because it will save lives."

The House and Senate were consistently unable to get on the same page to pursue the legislation until this year. Baker also jumped on board this year, including similar language in a broader road safety bill that would require primary seat belt enforcement and lower speed limits in work zones.

After passing by almost unanimous margins in both branches, the hands-free bill stalled out in a closed-doors conference committee for five months as negotiators found themselves at odds over the data collection requirements.

They filed a compromise version on Nov. 18, and two days later, the House and Senate sent the bill to Baker's desk with just one dissenting vote in each chamber.

Rep. Joseph Wagner, who first filed a hands-free bill in 2003 and served on the conference committee this session, said the law's success was an "emotional moment."

"I along with my colleagues and various administrations have put our fingerprints on a lot of important pieces of public policy that have impacted lives," Wagner, who has been in the Legislature since 1991, said. "But there is none in my 28-plus years that measures up to the law enacted here today and signed by the governor."