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By Colin A. Young

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JULY 11, 2018.....As advocates press for action before the end of the month, a member of House leadership who has opposed previous efforts to ban talking on a cellphone while driving said this week that he could support the version of that legislation that passed the Senate last year.

Assistant Majority Leader Rep. Byron Rushing's comments came amid new hope for advocates that a ban on handheld device use while driving, an issue that has stalled out on Beacon Hill despite indications of support from the governor and both branches of the Legislature, will become law this year.

A number of advocacy groups, including Safe Roads Alliance, TextLess Live More, and Massachusetts Vision Zero Coalition, rallied outside the State House on Wednesday to urge lawmakers to finally ban cellphone use by drivers before formal sessions end July 31. A 2010 law barred drivers from using cell phones to text, email or surf the internet, but left phone calls unregulated. Despite the law, many drivers can still be seen using their devices.

"Distracted driving is happening on our busy city streets and our winding country roads. People are driving distracted going 80 miles an hour on the highway or 5 miles an hour while stuck in traffic. They're driving with their eyes off the road," Emily Stein, president of the Safe Roads Alliance, said.

Nine people are killed every day in the United States due to distracted driving, according to TextLess Live More, and drivers under the age of 20 have the highest proportion of distraction-related fatal crashes.

Driving analytics company Zendrive studied three million anonymous drivers from across the country for three months and in a report published last year ranked Massachusetts 42nd out of the 50 states and Washington, D.C. -- the 10th most distracted state in the country. Nationwide, drivers reported using their phones during 88 percent of trips, the study found.

Stein added, "It cannot wait another year, it cannot wait another session. It has to happen now."

The Senate passed Sen. Mark Montigny's hands-free cellphone use measure last session, in 2016, and the House gave initial approval to a similar bill. But the effort stalled out in the House and did not become law.

Citing the dangers posed by distracted drivers, the Senate again passed a bill (S 2103) barring the use of handheld cell phones and other electronic devices behind the wheel in June 2017. That bill has languished in the House Ways and Means Committee for more than a year, but the House again gave initial approval that same month to a similar bill (H 3660) which was unanimously endorsed by the Transportation Committee.

Rushing said he and other legislators who are "concerned about police behavior" took a position years ago that they would not support primary enforcement of the seat belt law or distracted driving laws unless the authorization of primary enforcement is "directly connected to ending and making illegal racial profiling by Massachusetts police."

"We have an ongoing question around police behavior in traffic stops and that there is a disproportionate amount of stops and follow-up action based on race, what we usually call racial profiling," he said on WBUR's "Radio Boston" on Monday.

But Rushing said that an amendment adopted to the Senate bill, filed by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, added "important language toward ending racial profiling" and begins to satisfy his concerns.

"If this bill came before us with that language, then I can support it," Rushing said on WBUR. "And if, in some convoluted way, this bill came to the House without that language, I would put in an amendment."

Massachusetts and Maine are the only states in New England that allow drivers to hold a cellphone to their ear while driving a car. A ban took effect in Rhode Island last month.

In November, Gov. Charlie Baker threw his support behind a ban on using handheld devices while driving, an evolution from his previous position that texting -- not talking -- posed the greatest danger.

"We think it's time for us to weigh the circumstances and the difficulties and in some cases the dangers associated with distracted driving up against the benefits and the opportunities associated with hands-free," Baker said at a press conference in November.

Baker in November called on the Legislature to get a bill prohibiting handheld device use while driving to his desk by this summer.

Montigny noted Wednesday's rally and support from Baker in calling on his colleagues to agree to a final bill soon.

"The evidence is clear our roads are becoming more dangerous and deadly," Montigny said in a statement Wednesday. "At a time when hands free technology is widely available and affordable, there is no reason why we should refrain from requiring hands-free usage to improve roadway safety and help police enforce the law."

The House is in the midst of a policymaking blitz this week, advancing proposals addressing economic development, education funding, opioid addiction prevention and treatment, and clean energy. House leaders to date have not signaled any plans to advance a distracted driving bill.


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