Our Opinion: 'Hands-free' bill worth long wait

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Long in the making, to the frustration of many, Massachusetts is on the verge of having a tough law addressing the problem of distracted driving. The law is sure to have a positive impact, but effectively encouraging good behavior through legislation is one of the most difficult of tasks facing our elected representatives.

The House voted Tuesday and the Senate Wednesday in favor of a bill forbidding the use of all hand-held electronic devices while behind the wheel and establishing monetary penalties for those who violate the provisions. Gov. Baker is expected to sign it into law, enabling Massachusetts to join all of the other New England states in passage of such a measure.

Discussion about the need for such a law began at least three years ago but momentum began building two years ago when the governor set aside his reservations and threw his support behind the effort. It was two years ago that state Rep. John Barrett III, a North Adams Democrat, met with the family of Merritt Levitan, an 18-year-old who was killed by a distracted driver in Tennessee six years ago while riding in a cross-country bicycle tour hosted by Williamstown's Overland Summers. ("Bill aims to 'get serious' on distracted driving," Eagle, Nov. 21.) This meeting triggered Rep. Barrett's advocacy of the distracted driving bill. Of course, the members of the Berkshires' legislative delegation, who have the longest commutes to Beacon Hill of all the state's lawmakers, have regularly witnessed distracted drivers in their travels. One such driver, who was engaged in texting, struck Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier's car at high speed on the Turnpike nearly two years ago, resulting in head and back injuries that took the representative time to recover from.

Sadly, the bill became bogged down over the last two years because of concerns that it would lead to racial profiling of drivers by law authorities. Racial profiling is a serious issue and there have been laws on the book addressing it since 2000. It's unfortunate that the two worthy campaigns to mandate hands-free driving and combat racial profiling would collide in this fashion. The bill calls for the Registry of Motor Vehicles to collect data about age, race and gender from all of those who are cited for violating the law, with the data to be used for "statistical purposes" only. Rep. Chynah Tyler of Boston, the only House member to vote against the bill, said she did so because the data collection was insufficient to assure unbiased policing. As Rep. Farley-Bouvier suggested in The Eagle, this may be a work in progress to assure that adequate data is compiled to address and expose racial profiling.

As Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat, observed in The Eagle, the "hands free" bill can't prevent those who apply makeup, read newspapers or distract themselves in other ways while driving from doing so. When enacted, the law will surely save lives and reduce injuries on the highways. But it can't force people to drive responsibly. Until all cars are self-driving, operating a motor vehicle in a way that won't cause death and injury will require drivers to consider their welfare and the welfare of others when they turn the ignition key.

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