The grieving mother of a teenage crash victim watched yesterday as the Massachusetts House passed a bill that would make the state just the third in the nation to specifically ban text messaging while driving.
The bill, which would also prohibit drivers from making cellphone calls without a hands-free device, faces an uncertain future in the Senate. It passed by a vote of 107 to 47 in the House after at least a dozen similar bills filed last year went nowhere.
"Sometimes it takes a tragedy," said Representative Joseph F. Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat who sponsored the bill and who cochairs the Joint Committee on Transportation. "In this case, there were a number of tragedies."
The mother of Amanda Martin, a 17-year-old who died in a car crash in October, sat in the House gallery yesterday, as did Amanda's 14-year-old sister, Lainey. Police believe that text messaging contributed to Amanda's death because she veered off the road and hit a tree three minutes after receiving a message.
Her mother, Melissa Martin of Southbridge, appeared shaken when Representative Geraldo Alicea of Charlton read her words on the House floor: "You can't always be with your children. You can only hope they will always be safe."
Martin said that watching the debate was "a little nerve-racking," but said she was eager to take a stand.
The bill would punish offenders with a $100 fine for the first offense, a $250 fine for the second, and a $500 fine after that. Drivers under 18 would have their licenses suspended for 60 days following a first offense, 180 days after a second offense, and up to a year for a third offense.
Under an amendment, insurance companies can charge all violators surcharges beginning July 1, 2009.
An amendment approved yesterday stipulates that drivers can use their hands to dial and hang up the phone without a violation, as long as they use an earpiece or speakerphone during their calls.
Using pagers, personal digital assistants, and laptops while driving would be off-limits. Navigational devices and audio equipment are exempt from the ban, as are emergency calls or the use of cellphones by emergency personnel.
Critics say the state's statutes on reckless driving and driving while distracted already give police the ability to ticket for such offenses. Police issue more than 13,000 citations a year for distracted driving, Wagner said.
"We're going to put government in the car," said Representative James H. Fagan, a Taunton Democrat.
During a lengthy speech to his colleagues, Fagan blasted the bill as a knee-jerk reaction. He called the legislation stupid and said it would be a "merry Christmas" for the insurance companies because they would assess $140 surcharges to violators for 6 years. Fagan drew laughs when he said that holding a cellphone in the car was the only thing keeping him from picking his nose.
"It's not the fine that will punish me; it's the sur-fine," said Fagan, a defense lawyer.
A handful of high-profile crashes brought the issue of driver distraction to public consciousness. Washington and New Jersey enacted laws last year that ban text messaging while driving. Those states - along with Connecticut, California, New York, and the District of Columbia - also limit the use of phones in cars.
The bill has some support in the Massachusetts Senate, but it also faces key opposition. Senator Steven A. Baddour, a Methuen Democrat who cochairs the Joint Transportation Committee, said he has serious concerns.
"There's already laws on the books," Baddour said. "Quite frankly, if you're texting while driving, you shouldn't have a driver's license. It's just a dumb and irresponsible thing to do. No law is going to change that behavior."
Another knowledgeable Senate source said Senate President Therese Murray is not likely to bring the measure up for a vote in the near term. Murray, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
Governor Deval Patrick's spokesman, Kyle Sullivan, said he "supports efforts to limit unsafe driving habits, such as texting on cellphones while driving."
"As for any specific piece of legislation, we would obviously want to see what the bill looks like before making any decision," Sullivan said.
Noah Bierman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.