Hand-held cellphone ban unanimously approved by Massachusetts legislative committee

Drivers would be banned from using hand-held cellphones under a bill approved unanimously yesterday by the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee, an important early step as advocates try to revive a measure that stalled in the past.

Proponents of the ban, which would make Massachusetts the 10th state to prohibit even holding a cellphone while driving, say they want to finish the work they started with 2010’s Safe Driving Law.

That law banned any form of cellphone use by drivers under 18 and outlawed texting behind the wheel for adults, but the Legislature stopped short of banning all hand-held use for adults. That made the texting ban hard to enforce, given the difficulty of distinguishing between dialing and texting.

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Police wrote roughly 1,100 texting tickets in the law’s first year, according to Department of Transportation statistics—an average of just three a day, or roughly one for every 200 speeding tickets, in a state with 4.7 million licensed drivers.

Supporters of the tougher measure predicted that few tickets would be written with only a texting ban, said Senator Mark C. Montigny of New Bedford, the Senate sponsor. He called himself cautiously optimistic that the hand-held ban would become law.

The bill would allow only hands-free dialing and talking. “If that’s an inconvenience for people, tough,” Montigny said. “The inconvenience of the death and destruction on the road far outweighs any very minor inconvenience.”

Representative Joseph F. Wagner of Chicopee, the House sponsor, said Bluetooth devices and hands-free technology have become more affordable and widespread, while those who lack them could always pull over or wait until their destination to use their phone.

“It’s a common-sense measure,” said Wagner, in a phone interview he described as hands-free while driving home from the State House in his Honda Accord last night. “I think it will save lives; I think that it will improve public safety on the roads of Massachusetts; I think it’s a measure which is long overdue.”

A hand-held ban has twice reached the House floor and passed with broad support. The Senate has been divided, voting 18-16 to reject the idea in 2010.

Opponents have said a hands-free requirement would give drivers a false sense of security without protecting them from the distraction of the conversation itself, be it hands-free or hand-held.

Representative William M. Straus, House chairman of the transportation committee, said that may be the case, but dialing itself still poses a particular danger that pulls drivers’ eyes and attention from the road, their hands from the wheel.

“I happen to believe that having both hands available to drive—even though a conversation can be distracting—is still an improvement to public safety,” he said.

Straus and his Senate co-chairman, Senator Thomas M. McGee of Lynn, each voted to support the measure, which received an 8-0 endorsement from the committee. Three lawmakers voted to withhold their opinion, and some did not vote.

McGee was unavailable for an interview yesterday. Straus said it was too early to say if and when the measure would come to the floor for a vote—it may first head to the Ways and Means Committee to consider the financial aspects—but identical versions will proceed through the House and Senate.

Jeff Larson, president of the advocacy and education organization Safe Roads Alliance, called the committee vote “fantastic.”

“It would give police the ability to enforce the texting ban, and it would do a lot to take the phone out of people’s hands,” he said.