Baker in shift on distracted driving bill
Now supports ban on using handheld devices behind the wheel
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
A RISE IN FATAL ACCIDENTS caused by distracted driving and advances in technology prompted Gov. Charlie Baker to throw his support on Tuesday behind a ban on using handheld devices while driving, giving a boost to an initiative debated for years by policy leaders and increasing pressure on the House to act on the matter.
The position also represents an evolution on the issue by the governor who in February said he believed texting, and not talking, presented the biggest danger, and he worried that a ban would disproportionately impact lower-income drivers who can’t afford hands-free devices.
The Senate passed a bill in late June banning people from using handheld devices while driving. The governor requested Tuesday that the Legislature get a bill to his desk by next summer.
Baker also plans to file legislation to allow the state to enforce lower speed limits in work zones after Massachusetts has seen a number of workers and security officers injured on the job. Currently, the lower posted limits are suggestions, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said.
In February, Baker indicated he favors allowing people to continue chatting on hand-held phones while behind the wheel. “I don’t want to get out of the business of making it possible for people to talk to other people when they’re driving. Because I think the texting thing is a big problem. I’m not sure I believe that the talking thing is,” Baker said.
Baker said Tuesday he still believes people should be allowed to talk while driving, but has been convinced that talking hands-free is the safer and achievable goal. He also said advances in technology and the ubiquitous nature of smart-phones have alleviated his socio-economic concerns.
“The technology’s changed,” Baker said. “I can go hands-free in my car right now without Bluetooth just by using the hands-free device that’s available on my phone, and I think as phones get more and more sophisticated and the distribution of those smart phones is now pretty broad the opportunity for people to use hands free devices is better than they’ve ever been,” Baker said.
Baker called the press conference two days ahead of Thanksgiving, the busiest travel holiday of the year. He said State Police would be out in “big numbers” on the roads, and he encouraged people to be safe and use ride-sharing or alternative ways home if they’ve had too much to drink and drive.
According to the governor’s office, roadway fatalities in Massachusetts rose 12.8 percent in 2016, to 389 from 345 in 2015. Alcohol-impaired driving fatalities increased 9.2 percent from 109 in 2015 to 119 in 2016.
Pollack said six lives were lost on the roads over the Thanksgiving holiday last year.
The current law governing the admissibility of the horizontal gaze nystamus eye test is burdensome and “can lead to unnecessary, inefficient and unjust outcomes in prosecutions,” the governor’s office said.
The second bill would allow the state to set and enforce lower speed limits in work zones.
“Actually, in Massachusetts we suggest them but we don’t ticket them,” Pollack said of lower work zone speed limits. “You can only be ticketed if you’re actually going faster than the underlying speed limit for the road. We just don’t have the legal authority.”
Pollack recalled the death of a MassDOT contractor on a work site in 2016, and said that while there have been no fatalities during the 2017 construction season there were 44 work zone accidents, including some that led to serious injuries.
“It’s no secret to anyone whose been paying attention we have had issues over the course of the past several years, not just here, but in other parts of the country, with safety in work sites,” Baker said.
The governor also encouraged House and Senate lawmakers to include language in a final criminal justice reform bill to clarify that people charged with a third operating under the influence offense should be eligible to be held in custody while a judge determines if their release would pose a severe danger to the community.
Baker filed legislation (S 2087) to that end in response to a high court ruling, but said it will now be part of criminal justice negotiations between the House and Senate.
A 2010 law barred drivers from using cell phones to text message, email or surf the internet, but left phone calls unregulated. Citing the dangers posed by distracted drivers, the Senate one year ago passed a bill barring the use of handheld cell phones and other electronic devices behind the wheel.
The House gave initial approval to a similar bill filed by House Transportation Committee Chairman William Straus, but it stalled out in that branch.Proponents of the restriction argue the prevalance of multi-purpose cell phones is making traveling more dangerous for drivers, passenger and pedestrians.