New law restricts cellphone use while driving

Measure took more than a decade to pass

Gov. Charlie Baker ushered in a new era of road rules on Monday, signing into law a new ban on practically all forms of handheld cellphone use by drivers.

For well over a decade, some lawmakers have sought to crack down on the use of cellphones by drivers, and Rep. Joseph Wagner of Chicopee, the House assistant majority leader, described Monday’s signing ceremony as a crowning achievement of his career.

“This is an emotional moment in time for me. I’m in my 29th year of service in this Legislature. 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,” said the Chicopee Democrat who was a chief architect of the state’s casino law among other big bills. “But there is none in my 28-plus years that measures up to the law enacted here today.”

The governor put the law on the books – punctuating his signature with an exclamation point, according to Sen. Joseph Boncore of Winthrop – in the State House library, where family members of people who have been killed by distracted drivers could sit up front to see the fruits of their advocacy.

While the law was welcomed by many, some found the proposal signed Monday lacking in its efforts to curb racial bias by police. An expert on criminal justice and the American Civil Liberties Union were among the groups that contended that data about the race of the driver must be collected from all traffic stops – not just those that result in a written citation, as the law requires.

Several speakers, including the governor, suggested that the new ban will prevent deaths by reducing the dangerous but commonplace behavior of drivers playing with their phones – to talk, to text, or to use any of the myriad apps available.

“It’s comprehensive. It has a serious component for those who violate the law. And it makes provisions that help ensure the law is being equally applied,” said Baker, who added that the law would “save lives and prevent tragedies in the future.”

Supporters of the new law believe it is a major improvement on a 2010 law that merely outlawed texting while driving. Because phones can be used for so many other things beyond just sending messages, it was difficult for police to say with any certainty whether someone was texting or doing something else with their phones that is lawful – such as typing in a phone number.

The new ban will begin taking effect in February. Police will at first only have the option to issue warnings, but after March 31 police can start writing tickets with fines that escalate from $100 to $500 with possible insurance penalties kicking in on the third offense.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the Registry of Motor Vehicles will create a driver behavior class for offenders and update the driver’s manual, helping to “educate a generation of drivers about the importance of this law.”

Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes said while solo police can make stops on their own, larger police departments would likely put two police officers in one cruiser, with one driving and the other keeping an eye out for cellphone use possibly with a camera to record violations. Even though police can write tickets starting in April, Kyes said he expects police will continue issuing a lot of warnings once the law takes full effect.

With the signing of the distracted driving law, the governor has a few remaining proposals to evaluate.

He plans to sign the landmark $1.5 billion increase in the annual school funding formula on Tuesday, but his reaction to a bill banning flavored tobacco and electronic cigarette juice was harder to gauge.

“We certainly obviously have big concerns about the health issues associated with vaping, and we appreciate the Legislature’s work on that, and we’ll have more to say on that later this week,” Baker said.

The State House News Service on Monday afternoon reported that the governor plans to sign the education funding bill in Jamaica Plain on Tuesday. Rep. Alice Peisch, the House chairwoman of the Education Committee, said she is “pleased with the outcome and very happy that the governor is planning to sign it.”

The biggest outstanding item on lawmakers’ to-do-list for the year remains the bill to close the books on fiscal 2019 and deal with the roughly $1 billion surplus. All that Senate President Karen Spilka would say about that important legislation is “of course” she is working on passing something before the end of the year.