Massachusetts Considers Ban on Handheld Cellphone Use While Driving

Families of those killed in distracted driving accidents are asking Massachusetts lawmakers to back legislation that would require drivers to use hand-free phones in the state.

Foxborough, Massachusetts, resident Jerry Cibley’s 18-year-old son Jordan was killed in 2007 as he was talking on his phone while driving.

“It appears I was on the phone with him. It appears that he dropped his phone and went to pick it, took off his seat belt and unfortunately crashed into a tree and was killed instantly,” Cibley told reporters at a public hearing at the Statehouse Tuesday.

Cibley said earlier attempts to pass tougher legislation have gotten stuck in committee, but he’s hopeful a bill will pass this year.

Rep. Thomas McGee, the House chair of the Transportation Committee, said there’s no longer a reason to hold a cellphone while driving.

“The technology has changed dramatically,” said McGee, D-Lynn. “There’s no need for you to be looking at your phone or holding your phone.”

The use of cellphones while driving has long been a source of contention in Massachusetts. A 2010 state law already bans texting while driving and any cellphone use by junior operators 18 or younger.

But adults can still hold their phones and drive at the same time, as long as they’re not texting or emailing.

Police have said it’s hard to enforce the texting law since drivers can still lawfully hold a cellphone if they’re talking to someone.

Other states have toughened their laws.

On July 1, New Hampshire joined several Northeast states including Connecticut, Vermont and New York that require motorists to use hands-free technology such as Bluetooth, with exceptions for emergency situations.

One of the bills would set a fine of $100 for a first offense, $250 for a second offense, and $500 for a third or subsequent offense. A violation would be considered a moving violation for purposes of the safe driver insurance plan.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said he wants more information before deciding whether he’d support a ban on allowing motorists to hold a cellphone to their ear to talk while driving.

The Republican said he prefers not to speak on specific bills during the legislative process and before they reach his desk.

“I would certainly be interested in seeing where the conversation on this goes,” Baker told reporters Monday. “The technology on this stuff has gotten a lot more sophisticated than it was five years or so ago when it was last discussed here.”

Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he’s willing to take another look at proposals to tighten the law.

“I have heard from a couple of members in terms of their support so I’ll take that into consideration and talk to the proponents and opponents like I would any other bill and make a decision,” the Winthrop, Massachusetts, Democrat said.

Massachusetts Senate President Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, told reporters that he’s voted for the bill in the past and will continue to support it.

Opponents of hands-free rules point to what they view as the penchant in Massachusetts to act as a “nanny state.”

They say it’s up to individual drivers to take personal responsibility to ensure that cellphone conversations aren’t taking their attention off the road.