Driving with a cellphone in hand would be banned in Massachusetts under proposed legislation that aims to make the roads safer for drivers and pedestrians.
Proponents said the new laws would cut down on distracted driving accident rates, the same way that texting and driving is illegal. One bill specifically targets driving with a cellphone in school zones and aims to establish senior citizen safety zones.
The Transportation Committee is considering a bill at a public hearing on Tuesday that would require drivers to use Bluetooth or other hands-free devices while driving except to report on an emergency situation.
There are 14 states, including Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and New York that each have hands-free laws.
“There is no personal liberty to create unnecessary hazards on the roadways,” State Rep. William Straus, a proponent of the ban, said in a statement.
Drivers 18 and under have not been allowed to drive on the phone since 2010.
According to Handsfreeinfo.com, police in Massachusetts have written about 15,000 citations for folks texting and driving since the 2010 texting ban went into effect. But officers often can’t distinguish whether drivers are texting or making a call.
"The bill to pass texting while driving illegal was good, but it was written in a way that was difficult to enforce," Jeff Larson of Safe Roads Alliance said. "This gives visual cue to enforcement. The way the laws are now, police don't take note of how many phone-related crashes there are. It's not like drunk, where the Breathalyzers keep record. There are more people on their cell phones than drunk on the road."
As the laws stand, drivers caught texting and driving earn a $100 fine for the first offense, $250 for the second, then $500 from then on out.
One of the bills headed to the House of Representatives seeks to toughen up distracted driving penalties, boosting the initial fine to $250 and a permit or license suspension for 90 days for the first offense, $500 for the second, $750 for subsequent offenses. Drivers talking on the phones without a hands-free device would put themselves at risk of fines ranging from $500 to $1,5000.
"These may seem like steep fines, but it shows how serious this is," Larson said. "Put the phone down so you don't put someone in the hospital."
School bus drivers and public transit operators are fined $500 for using their cell phones at all. MBTA bus drivers have been barred from cellphone use since 2009, but the punishments were upped when they added carrying a cellphone on duty to the 10-day suspension and a recommendation for employment termination after two violations
In 2014, an MBTA bus driver drove their bus through a guardrail and a chain link fence before coming to a halt with the front of the bus hanging over the bridge in Newton, injuring seven people. Surveillance footage showed the driver holding her phone at the time of the crash.
In 2009, a Green Line operator was texting his girlfriend when he missed a red-light signal and barreled into another trolley at Government Center Station, inuring 49 people.