AP NEWS

Banning Hand-held Phone Use by Drivers is Long Overdue

March 13, 2019

Let’s get this show on the road. That was the theme of Gov. Charlie Baker’s visit last week to the Boston offices of the AAA, which he used to promote a bill he filled in January to ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving.

It’s become a familiar refrain for our governor, ever since he became a convert to the concept back in 2017. At the time, Baker cited advances in technology that allow drivers to use their smartphones to accomplish what previously required a Bluetooth device or another speaker system for voice calling.

The bill would also require anyone convicted of a first offense for operating under the influence who applies for a hardship license to use an ignition interlock device for a minimum of six months, and be subject to penalties from the state for attempting to drive after drinking or tampering with the device.

MADD Program Director Mary Kate Depamphilis, on hand for Baker’s AAA appearance, said Massachusetts is the only state in the country without an ignition interlock program for first-time drunken-driving offenders. According to Depamphilis, 39,000 people have been stopped from driving drunk in this state over the past 12 years by ignition interlock devices.

Massachusetts does require ignition interlock devices for repeat OUI offenses.

If adopted by the Legislature, Massachusetts would become the 17th state to require hands-free cellphone use while driving. Those 16 other states include Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and New York.

Unlike the Legislature, most Massachusetts’ residents are ahead of the curve on this issue. Polling numbers put support for a hand-held cellphone ban at more than 75 percent.

Baker believed lawmakers were poised to send him a ban bill in the last legislative session, but negotiations broke down.

The major sticking point then appeared to be concerns by some lawmakers that such legislation would encourage racial profiling. Last session’s Senate bill appeared to have addressed that roadblock by requiring law-enforcement agencies to collect relevant data for all traffic stops. However, House leadership apparently wasn’t prepared to go along with a cellphone ban.

So, what could stall cellphone-ban legislation this time? If those still opposed need another reason, it’s language in the bill that allows police to stop motorists for not wearing a seat belt. We understand why some lawmakers and citizens consider that a law-enforcement overreach, which could open the door to other offenses based on that seat-belt pretext.

Only a clueless minority of motorists still insist on tempting fate by eschewing seat belts. And since they’re only a danger to themselves, we don’t believe its deal-breaking potential warrants inclusion in this otherwise prudent bill.

And a hand-held cellphone ban also would greatly enhance the enforcement of the law against texting while driving -- the main cause of cellphone-related accidents and fatalities. A cellphone ban would remove the main flaw with the anti-texting law, since officers currently can’t easily discern whether someone is texting or simply punching in a number on their phone.

Minus that seat-beat provision, we see no reason why the Legislature shouldn’t pass this sensible bill.