Our Opinion: Distracted driving bill stuck in traffic jam

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Our state Legislature often does good, sometimes pioneering work, for which lawmakers deserve due credit. The Legislature often deserves blame, however, for allowing transparently beneficial legislation to be tied in knots, dumped into committees, or stymied by deadlines that should have been readily met.

In an example of the latter, House and Senate Democrats on Wednesday failed to reach a compromise on distracted driving legislation that has been in the works for months and should have been a slam-dunk. The goal is to require hands-free use of all mobile devices while driving. Texting and emailing while driving has been illegal since 2010, but modern smart phone technology has evolved in ways that the 9-year-old law could not have anticipated. Lawmakers in the House and Senate support this effort and Gov. Baker has been waiting to sign legislation into law.

But the devil is in the details, and House-Senate turf wars can gum up even the best legislation. The Senate bill requires drivers to take a class after a second offense of the new provision and makes third and subsequent violations surchargeable offenses for insurance purposes. The House included neither provision. The Senate version requires law enforcement to track demographic data for all traffic stops related to the offense while the House bill only calls for a collecting data on stops that end with the issuance of a citation.

It's disappointing but not shocking that House and Senate conferees couldn't come up with a compromise. Making the violations eligible for surcharges provides an incentive for drivers to keep their hands free of electronic devices but that provision's inclusion or removal should not be deal breakers. The same goes for the dispute over data collection.

It's shameful that profit-driven manufacturers of electronic devices and smart phones and designers of apps are so focused on making their devices easier to use and even more addictive that they don't see or won't acknowledge that they are contributing to death and destruction on the highways. That leaves government with the responsibility of stepping in to minimize the damage to whatever extent possible. In a letter to the conferees provided to the State House News Service, a frustrated Sen. Mark Montigny, who has been pushing for tough distracted driving laws for 15 years, wrote: "Each day we fail to take action results in injury, property damage, and loss of life. Families who have lost loved one to distracted driving are also left in limbo, wondering whether we are really serious about preventing future tragedies."

Those are indeed the ramifications of legislative inaction, and none of the differences between the House and Senate bills are significant enough to block passage of this overdue and worthwhile bill. We urge lawmakers to address this bill as soon as possible after recess and resolve the minor differences between the House and Senate bills. Enough time has been wasted.

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