Just ban the use of hand-held devices in vehicles, now

Work out data collection language later

In this Thursday, May 16, 2019 photo, a driver uses his cell phone while driving in Portland, Maine. A bill to ban the use of handheld cellular devices while driving in the state goes into effect on Thursday, Sept. 19. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
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Yes, Mr. Speaker, you’re right. It’s time legislative leaders took this distracted-driving law impasse into their own hands.

With this legislation still stuck in the reconciliation process three months after both the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed similar versions of this bill, House Speaker Robert DeLeo recently floated the idea of just passing a straightforward ban on handheld devices.

That would remove the major roadblock that’s kept this common-sense bill from becoming law – how to use the demographic data collected during the ban’s enforcement.

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; motorists would only be allowed a single tap or swipe to activate hands-free mode.

However, the bills contain different approaches on how data related to the ban’s enforcement should be collected and circulated.

The Senate version calls for police to track demographic data for every single driver pulled over and make it publicly available, while the House bill would only require law enforcement to track stops that ended with citations, with no mandate that data be published.

We assume the Senate negotiators favor the more extensive collection and dissemination approach in case there’s any evidence of racial profiling in the data, especially if a particular minority group accounts for a disproportionate number of stops and citations.

That’s been the sticking point to passage over the last several legislative sessions, one that we thought legislators had resolved. Apparently, that’s not the case, since compromise on this issue continues to elude Senate and House negotiators.

We’ve always considered this legislation a public-safety bill – one that will save lives — that shouldn’t be stymied by questions of civil rights.

Here’s why:  A 2010 state law banned texting while driving, but motorists 18 and older could still use their cellphones. That makes it virtually impossible for authorities to enforce the texting ban, since it’s difficult for police to discern texting from cellphone use.

That’s probably the most compelling argument for a handheld ban.

What Speaker DeLeo proposed is probably how this legislation should have been crafted in the first place.

We know Gov. Charlie Baker must be as frustrated as the vast majority of his Massachusetts constituents, who also support hands-free legislation. And while Senate President Karen Spilka reportedly still believes a compromise can be reached, that stalled ship has sailed.

We’re with state Sen. Mark Montigny. The New Bedford Democrat, in reaction to Maine’s adoption of a hands-free law last week, issued a statement that reads in part: “This legislation has languished far too long; each day that we don’t act, we put innocent lives at risk.”

And as Montigny noted, Maine’s passage leaves Massachusetts — that liberal, progressive bastion – as the only state in New England without such a law.

DeLeo stressed that he doesn’t want to see data collection taken off the table entirely. He said it could be considered as a standalone bill once the hands-free bill is implemented.

That’s a perfectly logical approach.

On this issue, public safety and profiling are mutually exclusive.

Resubmit a no-contingency hands-free bill, and deal later with how to use the collected demographic data.