DeLeo floats hands-free driving proposal

Would leave issue of collecting demographic data until later


WITH A DISTRACTED DRIVING BILL bill stuck in private negotiations for more than three months and frustrated advocates ramping up their criticism, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the solution might be splitting off the more contentious components of the legislation.

After meeting with Gov. Charlie Baker and Senate President Karen Spilka, DeLeo told reporters that it may be worthwhile to implement a ban on the use of virtually all handheld electronic devices behind the wheel as its own legislation, then circle back later in the session to resolve the debate over how to collect demographic data about how the ban is enforced.

Both branches passed bills — 155-2 in the House and 40-0 in the Senate — with nearly identical language requiring drivers to use hands-free cellphone technology, but with different approaches to how data on enforement of the ban should be collected and disseminated.

For more than three months, the matter has been stuck in a private conference committee, where members have not found a resolution.

“Although both sides are working to a resolution, I think that should that resolution not take place within a reasonable period of time, then I think we ought to start thinking about splitting up the bill to make sure that, at the very least, we get the hands-free portion done,” DeLeo said.
The Winthrop Democrat did not say how much longer he thought negotiators should be given to reach a compromise.

As the Democrat-controlled conference committee stretches on, its members have offered little insight into where talks stand. They reached an “agreement in principle” on the night of July 31, but that fell apart hours later when House members backed a draft bill they assumed to be final and Senate members declined to sign off because of concerns with “language.”

Since then, the committee chairs, Rep. William Straus and Sen. Joseph Boncore, have declined to discuss their deliberations in detail, though Straus first floated the idea of splitting the legislation to WGBH earlier Monday.

Asked if she agreed with the speaker about the value of a clean hands-free bill, Senate President Karen Spilka referred to the conference committee chairs and said, “They’re talking, they’re trading language, so we’re hoping this can get done and resolved very soon.”

“The Senate is also very concerned about the hands-free aspect and it not continuing being unresolved,” she said. “We are incredibly close, I believe, and I think that the parties can hopefully resolve this in the very near future.”

Spilka said the matter is “too important” to allow disagreements over data collection to derail the bill.

The Senate passed a version of the bill in each of the two previous sessions only for it never to come up for a vote in the House. This session, the matter appeared to have significant momentum when Baker included similar language in a bill he filed, and both branches passed bills before the summer.

All the proposals included the same underlying push to get phones out of drivers’ hands, but the Senate legislation called for police to track demographic data for every single driver pulled over and make it publicly available, while the House version would have only required law enforcement to track stops that ended with citations and would not have required the data to be published.

Discontent with lawmakers is growing as the wait for the new law continues. Advocacy groups and individuals who have been injured or lost family members to distracted-driving crashes are planning a Sept. 26 press conference to air their concerns if no bill emerges by then.

“I would bet that everyone who’s involved in this conversation is frustrated because I’m sure everybody would like to see this get resolved,” Baker told reporters Monday.

The governor did not say if he believes the Legislature should bring forward a simple hands-free proposal, answering only that he is “looking forward to signing a bill.”

Meet the Author

Chris Lisinski

Reporter, State House News Service
DeLeo stressed that he would not want to see data collection taken off the table entirely. He said it could be considered as a standalone bill once the hands-free language is implemented to replace the state’s current texting-while-driving ban that law enforcement has argued is “unenforceable.”

“I think that both issues can get done,” DeLeo said. “It’s a question of whether they can get done together. I just have a concern that the longer it hangs out there, in terms of the hands-free, for the public-safety aspect, I would like to see if we could at least get that issue taken care of.”