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Deal set for ban of texting at wheel

Mass. bill also adds rules for older drivers

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / June 23, 2010

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House and Senate lawmakers said yesterday that they have agreed to a ban on texting while driving and that they expect the Legislature to approve the measure within days.

The lawmakers, emerging from months of meetings on Beacon Hill about how best to limit distracted driving, said they would also bar the youngest drivers, those under age 18, from talking on the phone while driving and would require the oldest drivers, those 75 and above, to have vision tests and to renew their license in person, rather than online.

“I commute 72 miles each way to the State House, and people are reading textbooks, putting eyeliner on, slapping their kids in the backseat, eating Big Macs, and a myriad of other things, while driving cars, usually with their knees,’’ said Senator Stephen M. Brewer, a Barre Democrat. “This is a significant step forward.’’

The House plans to vote on the so-called Safe Driving Act as soon as today, and the Senate as soon as tomorrow. A spokeswoman for Governor Deval Patrick said he “has been strongly supportive of efforts to make our roads safe’’ and would review the legislation when it reaches his desk.

The legislation would make Massachusetts the 29th state to ban texting for all drivers and the 29th to ban all phone use for drivers under 18, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

The texting ban would also cover e-mailing, Internet searching, and other noncalling activity on a phone, laptop, or handheld electronic device by anyone operating a motor vehicle. It would apply to drivers not only while they are driving but also while waiting at traffic lights and stop signs. Texting — and talking for those under 18 — would still be allowed by a driver in an emergency or when the car is pulled over and parked.

“We want to send a strong message today that texting and driving is unacceptable in the Commonwealth,’’ said Senator Steven A. Baddour, a Methuen Democrat and the cochairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation. ‘If you’re behind the wheel and you’re texting and law enforcement sees you, you will be pulled over, you will be cited, and you will be paying a substantial fine.’’

The agreement follows five years of debate over a variety of measures aimed at forcing cellphone users to pay more attention to the road. Earlier this year, the House and Senate passed different versions of such a bill before negotiators spent 105 days in conference committee hammering out a deal. In that time, a flurry of other states enacted texting bans, and a chorus as varied as Oprah Winfrey and US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood emerged to call on Beacon Hill to act faster.

The law would also make it easier for police officers and doctors to alert the Registry of Motor Vehicles to concerns they have about a licensed driver’s mental or physical fitness, regardless of age. It would also require the Registry to establish a public education campaign about the dangers of distracted driving. The law would also make it easier for the Registry to call for retesting drivers who receive multiple speeding tickets or incur other surchargeable infractions, like running red lights.

Legislative negotiators dropped a proposal, approved earlier by the House, that would have made Massachusetts the eighth state to ban the use of handheld cellphones while driving.

Massachusetts has 309,724 licensed drivers 75 or older and about another 170,000 drivers who are within five years of turning 75, said Ann Dufresne, a spokeswoman for the Registry. The state had nearly 47,000 junior operators, drivers under 18, by last June, she said.

Baddour, House counterpart Joseph F. Wagner, and others on the six-member conference committee acknowledged yesterday that Beacon Hill could have done more in previous years. But they defended their deliberations this spring as a careful process aimed at all kinds of distracted driving and at improving safety on the roads.

Wagner called the result “a model for the nation.’’

But some said the legislation has taken too long.

“It’s sort of like good news, bad news,’’ said Senator Mark C. Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat who has proposed similar bills since 2004. “The only thing that’s changed from back then is that more people have died or been seriously injured and not just those who chose to drive distracted, but many, many innocent people who were injured or killed because of dangerous behavior.’’

Other groups that supported the bill but also wanted a handheld phone ban, including AAA and the Governors Highway Safety Association, said they were nonetheless pleased that lawmakers were advancing a safe-driving bill.

“The texting piece was AAA’s priority, because texting is so dangerous,’’ said Mary Maguire, director of public and legislative affairs for AAA of Southern New England. “It’s the most egregious distraction that there is behind the wheel. . . . It takes your eyes off the road, it takes your hands off the wheel, and it takes your mind off driving.’’

The state branch of AARP supported most of the bill’s provisions, but sharply criticized the provision that would prevent only older drivers from renewing from home.

“Health conditions and impairments don’t begin at a specific age,’’ said Deborah Banda, state director of AARP Massachusetts. “People age differently. What we had asked for is that everybody be subjected to in-person renewal on a regular basis throughout their driving career.’’

At the Registry’s Braintree branch, a number of people said they were glad lawmakers were doing something about distracted driving, but they disagreed about aspects of the legislation. Some drivers in their 80s said they encorsed stricter screening of older drivers, but were worried about stripping people of their ability to get around or singling out senior citizens.

Some younger drivers said phone use by teens had become too pervasive for lawmakers and police to stop.

“I think it’s unrealistic; I don’t think there’s any way you’ll be able to stop all teenagers from using their phone,’’ said Jared Friedberg, 16, of Milton, adding that he would observe the law with his new learner’s permit.

Mollie Brown of Westwood, who turned 16 yesterday, said she would try to separate herself from her phone at the wheel. “Well, maybe,’’ she said. “It depends.’’

Not quite, said her mother, Laurie Brown, who has tried to set an example for her daughters by tossing them the phone if it rings while she is driving.

“If it’s important,’’ she said, “you pull over.’’

Globe correspondent Jack Nicas contributed to this report. Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

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