BOSTON — Lawmakers are expected to vote this week on a long-awaited plan to toughen the state’s distracted driving laws by banning the hand-held use of cellphones while driving.

The move follows weeks of closed-door negotiations over the legislation, which would prohibit drivers from holding a phone while talking, inputting an address into a GPS, or composing or reading text messages.

Fines would range from $100 for a first offense up to $500 for repeated offenses. Motorists with multiple violations would be subject to insurance surcharges.

The House and Senate could vote on the compromise bill as early as Wednesday, sending the measure to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk before they recess for the holiday break.

Safe driving advocates, who have prodded Beacon Hill leaders for years to update the state’s rules on cellphone use behind the wheel, welcomed a breakthrough.

“We’re thrilled and proud that years of efforts have finally paid off,” said Jerry Cibley of Foxborough, whose 18-year-old son Jordan died in a 2007 distracted driving accident. “This bill will absolutely save lives in the memories of our loved ones.”

Passing a hands-free bill has been an uphill battle, advocates say, despite years of emotional testimony from survivors of fatal distracted driving accidents.

Emily Stein, president of the nonprofit Safe Roads Alliance, lost her father to a distracted driver in 2011. She said tough new rules of the road are needed to prevent more fatalities and “educate drivers about the serious consequences of phone use while driving.”

“We have lost too many lives, too many disabling, serious injuries that were caused by a distracted driver,” Stein said. “This is a big step toward preventing more of these senseless, preventable crashes.”

The law would go into effect 90 days after Baker signs it. Violators would initially be given warnings through March 31, when the fines and tougher sanctions go into effect.

Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, is among a majority of lawmakers who support tougher restrictions on the use of electronic devices by motorists and said the current law has proven ineffective.

He plans to vote for the new rules.

“It certainly took longer than anyone wanted it to,” said Tucker, a former Salem police chief. “But a lot of thought went into it and I think the final product is a good bill.”

Lawmakers banned texting while driving and cellphone use by drivers age 18 or younger in 2010.

But adults are still allowed to hold phones and drive at the same time as long as they are not texting or emailing, making the law difficult to enforce.

A six-member committee — four Democrats and two Republicans — spent months meeting behind closed doors to finalize details of a plan requiring hands-free use of all mobile devices.

Discussions got underway in June to merge House and Senate versions of the legislation, but those talks broke down in September.

It’s not exactly clear what held up a compromise for so long since the negotiations were conducted in meetings closed to the press and public.

Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and NAACP raised concerns that allowing police to pull people over for cell phone violations could lead to racial profiling.

They pushed for a requirement that police collect racial and ethnic data on all traffic stops as a way to track for profiling.

The bill requires data on enforcement of the law to be submitted to the state Registry of Motor Vehicles, which would have information on traffic stops analyzed. The Legislature would receive an annual report on the data.

Should the annual review determine that a police department has engaged in racial or gender profiling, its officers would have to undergo “bias training” under the latest version of the bill.

Distracted driving is blamed for more than 4,000 motorist deaths per year nationwide, according to AAA Southern New England. The group also supports a hands-free cell phone law.

Nationwide, cellphone use was cited in more than one-quarter of motor vehicle crashes in 2017, according to the National Safety Council.

To date, at least 20 other states and Washington, D.C., ban the use of hand-held devices, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Every other New England state, as well as New York, approved similar bans.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

 

 

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