Committee OKs Bill Limiting Drivers To Hands-Free Phones

Less than two years after Massachusetts joined the ranks of states that banned texting while driving, a legislative committee endorsed a proposal Thursday that would largely prohibit handheld cellphone use by drivers, limiting calls to hands-free devices.

The bill (H 1817) won the backing of the Committee on Transportation, which voted 8-0 in support with three members abstaining. The National Transportation Safety Board recently voted to recommend a total ban on handheld cellphone use in cars in the United States.

Under the bill “No operator of a motor vehicle shall use a mobile telephone or mobile electronic device for voice communications, unless said telephone or device is being used as a hands-free mobile telephone.” Drivers may defend themselves against alleged law violations if they show their car was disabled, a passenger required medical attention, police or firefighter assistance was needed, or if they witnessed an accident on the roadway.

Rep. William Straus (D-Mattapoisett), co-chair of the Committee on Transportation, told the News Service that he expected the House would support the proposal – the branch has backed similar restrictions before – but that passage in the Senate, where hands-free requirements have been narrowly defeated in recent years, is still uncertain with new members in that branch potentially dictating its fate.

Straus’s co-chair, Sen. Thomas McGee (D-Lynn), did not respond to a request for comment. McGee and Straus voted in support of the legislation, along with Rep. Denise Provost (D-Somerville), Rep. Carl Sciortino (D-Medford), Rep. Mark Cusack (D-Braintree), Rep. Steve Howitt (R-Seekonk), Sen. Brian Joyce (D-Milton) and Sen. Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton).

Sen. Jennifer Flanagan (D-Leominster), Sen. Michael Rush (D-West Roxbury) and Rep. John Mahoney (D-Worcester) voted to withhold their opinion on the bill.

In 2010, the Senate voted 16-18 to defeat a handheld cellphone ban, with opponents contending that holding cell phones aren’t causing accidents, but rather the distraction of the conversation is to blame.

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