Berkshire delegation talks bill's effort to 'get serious' about distracted driving

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PITTSFIELD — Merritt Levitan was 18 when a distracted driver struck and killed her as she was riding in a cross-country bicycle tour hosted by Williamstown's Overland Summers.

The 2013 death of the young athlete and scholar from Milton, who succumbed to brain injuries at a Tennessee hospital along the tour route, inspired her family and friends to advocate for laws banning the use of hand-held devices while driving.

When Levitan's family shared the story of their loss with state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, two years ago, he, too, was moved to advocate in favor of the distracted driving bill that was passed by the Massachusetts Senate on Wednesday.

"I spoke on the bill when it first reached the floor of the House," Barrett said Wednesday. "I saw what it did to three fathers who were in the chamber that day when I spoke, who lost their daughters. I saw the impact it had."

The law would forbid the use of all hand-held electronic devices behind the wheel, except for those operating in a hands-free mode. Drivers would be allowed to view electronic maps on a device mounted to the windshield, dashboard or center console, but could not use their hands to interact with any electronic beyond a single touch or tap to activate hands-free mode.

The law would take effect in 90 days if signed by Gov. Charlie Baker, though motorists would only receive warnings for violating any of the new provisions through March 31, 2020. After that, fines are scheduled to start at $100 for a first offense, $250 for a second offense, and $500 for third and subsequent offenses.

The bill, which mirrors laws in place in many other states, had been years in the making. It is now on the desk of Baker, who, in late 2017, shifted his position to support a hand-held device use ban after a rise in fatal accidents caused by distracted driving and advances in technology.

Texting and driving already is illegal in Massachusetts.

Pittsfield Police Sgt. Marc Maddalena said it can be challenging to track how many accidents in the city are a result of distracted driving, because those involved don't readily admit to it.

When it comes to rear-end collisions, a common excuse is that the driver "just looked away or down for a moment," Maddalena said. In those cases, it's "safe to assume" that distracted driving is a factor, he said.

"People also need to realize that it is a violation even if you are at a red light," Maddalena said of texting and driving.

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While there are no distracted pedestrian laws, that, too, has been the cause of some Pittsfield crashes.

"In the end, any law that improves the safety of the public on our roadways is a positive effort that we support," Maddalena said.

Members of the Berkshire legislative delegation have some of the longest commutes to Boston of all state officials and are acutely aware of the perils of distracted driving.

Nearly two years ago, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, was driving on the Massachusetts Turnpike from Boston when another car struck her at a high speed, totaling her car.

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Farley-Bouvier suffered a back and head injury that took a while for her to recover from, "because someone thought their text was more important than me."

It can be easy to get "sucked into the urgency" of busy lives, but it's important to keep the safety of other drivers as a top priority, she said.

Barrett and state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, both of whom also travel on the Massachusetts Turnpike between Berkshire County and the Statehouse, talked about the sheer number of drivers they spot along their travels who are not fully focused on the road.

"This bill is so needed. Just driving to Boston, people are trying to text. They got a phone stuck to their ear. It's really distracting," Barrett said. "It's totally out of hand now, how many people come close to serious accidents."

Barrett, who participated in the phone interview Wednesday using a hands-free device in his car, said that he didn't expect the law to eliminate the fatal crashes caused by distracted driving, but that it likely would reduce them.

"It is still a distraction, of course," he said of the hands-free technology, but at least it eliminates the need to look down at a screen. Barrett's device even reads text messages aloud in the car, he said.

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Pignatelli, whose device doesn't have the ability to read messages aloud, said he is used to going without emails and text messages during the nearly three-hour commute.

The House vote on Tuesday to adopt the legislation was nearly unanimous.

Rep. Chynah Tyler, of Boston, was the only vote against the compromise bill. In a speech on the floor, she said the bill's data-collection provisions do not go far enough.

While Tyler agreed that the state needed to pass the legislation, she wants to ensure that enough data was collected during traffic stops to ensure that a goal of unbiased policing is met.

"There's still some unresolved issues with this bill," Farley-Bouvier said. "We just have to continue to work on how we track the race and ethnicity and gender of drivers during stops."

With the long-fought effort of passing hands-free legislation almost in the past, Pignatelli hopes to see more drivers keeping their attention on the road.

It's not just phones that are distracting, Pignatelli said. He routinely spots people applying makeup and reading the newspaper. During one drive, Pignatelli saw two birds flying around uncaged in a moving car.

Now that devices are on the cusp of being banned, he hopes that drivers will "get serious" about eliminating other distractions while they drive, as well.

"No makeup. No birds. No newspapers," he said.

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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