Distracted Driving Bill Activists Demand Change From Mass. Lawmakers

Loved ones of those killed in distracted-driving crashes want lawmakers to take up a simple handheld device ban as soon as possible if negotiators cannot reach a compromise

Flanked by pictures of a dozen Massachusetts residents killed or injured in distracted-driving crashes, residents demanded Thursday that the Legislature take up a simple handheld device ban as soon as possible if negotiators can't reach a compromise Thursday on a bill that also includes language aimed at monitoring for racial profiling.

Speakers told harrowing stories of loss, recounting loved ones who died from injuries they suffered after being struck by drivers using mobile devices or the time they lost themselves while recovering from crashes.

Those types of tragedies, they said, are the cost of inaction.

"Let us please preserve their memory and not allow any other families to experience our excruciating and agonizing pain," said Jerry Cibley, whose son, Jordan, was killed in a crash. "Please, help us make these senseless deaths a thing of the past."

"We are all here because our fathers or sons or daughters were tragically and violently killed by something that is 100% preventable," said Emily Stein, whose father died in a crash with a distracted driver.

"Three people walking across the street — 3,300 pound car — my daughter weighed 120," said Tom Brannelly, who lost his daughter in a crash. "This has got to stop."

Lawmakers have debated legislation for years that would require hands-free use of mobile devices behind the wheel, intending to close the gaps left by an existing texting-while-driving ban that has proven ineffective and which law enforcement has said is unenforceable.

As both Richard Levitan, founder of the TextLess Live More Group, and Sen. Mark Montigny noted Thursday, Massachusetts is the last New England state without a hands-free law after Maine's went into effect last week.

Although both branches passed bills this session, a conference committee has been unable to overcome disagreements about language requiring police to track demographic data from traffic stops, hampering the underlying push.

Speakers said they want to see House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka meet with the committee Thursday to find a compromise and, if that fails, pass a simple hands-free bill as soon as possible and continue debate on data collection separately.

DeLeo has suggested splitting the bill, but Spilka has not expressed support.

The House has adjourned for the week, after holding a short session Thursday morning.

Stein, the president of the Safe Roads Alliance, said it is "frustrating" to hear legislative leaders speak about the bill as a priority when onlookers "see no action." She said groups would continue to pressure lawmakers until a bill is passed.

"We feel very strongly that a compromise can be met, and we're just going to defer to the chairs and the speaker and the Senate president to do their jobs, because we're not professional politicians. We're grieving families or survivors," Stein said.

Their press conference came two days after 16 civil-rights organizations wrote to DeLeo and Spilka warning that a draft compromise supported by House members, which does not require analysis of traffic-stop data to be made public, "would do absolutely nothing to advance racial justice."

That tension has left the bill's future unclear, even as conferees say they continue their dialogue on the topic. Sen. Becca Rausch tweeted Wednesday that she would vote against a hands-free bill if the data-collection language was stripped.

"I will not agree to a so-called 'compromise' bill that fails to address systemic racism," Rausch tweeted. "We cannot pass distracted driving and do the data piece later; we must not continue to put the burden of progress on the backs of black and brown people."

Survivors and families said Thursday that they, too, recognize the importance of the data-collection language and want it to become law, but believe the hands-free component is too important a public safety matter to be held up over debate on something else.

"We respect the advocates who are pushing hard to address the data collection and the data analysis that needs to be done to protect all members of the commonwealth, particularly those of color," Levitan, whose daughter, Merritt, was killed in a crash, said. "What I say to those advocates is: compromise. The extreme positions that are taken lead to an impasse, and that's what we have right now."

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