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All Massachusetts motorists, including police, would be barred from texting while driving and older drivers would undergo vision tests every five years under a bill released by a special legislative committee Tuesday.
The compromise legislation, which takes elements from different versions of a bill already approved by the House and Senate, also bans drivers younger than 18 from using cell phones. Those caught texting and driving would face a fine and the suspension of their license or learner's permit.
Anyone 18 and older would still be able to use cell phones while driving without facing any penalty.
If the bill is approved, Massachusetts would join 28 other states and the District of Columbia in banning drivers from texting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Nearby states including Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York have already adopted bans.
Nine states enacted texting bans this year.
"Texting has become the norm in our society," said state Sen. Steve Baddour, a Methuen Democrat and co-chairman of the Legislature's Transportation Committee, who added that younger drivers have grown up texting. "We need ... to begin to break that habit when people get behind the wheel."
Under the bill, those caught texting while driving would face a $100 fine for a first offense, $250 for a second offense and a $500 fine for all subsequent offenses.
Police would be able to pull over drivers they see texting, but the offense would not be considered a moving violation subject to an insurance surcharge.
The House and Senate had split on another key proposal when debating their own versions of the bill.
The House backed an amendment that would ban drivers from using any kind of cell phones except hands-free models with voice-activated dialing. The Senate bill rejected the hands-free requirement.
The final version of the bill essentially sided with the Senate.
Baddour said using hands-free phones doesn't significantly reduce the distraction of cell phones. He said the problem is the phone call itself.
"Hands-free isn't going to solve that," he said.
On another contentious issue, the six-member committee decided to require older drivers to undergo vision tests ever five year after reaching age 75.
The push for tighter restrictions on elderly drivers increased last year after a spate of accidents involving older drivers.
Those included the June 2009 death of 4-year-old Diya Patel, who was struck and killed by an 88-year-old driver as she was crossing a Stoughton street in a crosswalk with her grandfather.
Rep. Joseph Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat and the House transportation chairman rejected calls for older drivers to be required to take road tests, saying vision tests were sufficient.
He said the legislation also requires the Registrar of Motor Vehicles to come up with regulations to help identify "cognitive or functional impairments that are likely to affect a person's ability to safely operate a motor vehicle."
Wagner said those regulations could help allow the RMV to revoke the licenses of drivers deemed unfit to operate a car.
Senior groups had fought against any testing based on age.
AARP Massachusetts State Director Deborah Banda said the group was disappointed with proposal to require vision tests after age 75.
"Age by itself doesn't cause car crashes," Banda said in a statement. "Health conditions and impairments do not begin at a specific age and are not experienced by every person in the same way."
The bill also includes two other measures.
One would bar bus drivers, subway operators and others who drive public transportation vehicles from using cell phones or face a $500 fine. The other would require the RMV to take a second look at any driver involved in three or more traffic violations within a 24-month period to determine whether he or she can continue to safely operate a car.
The bill has to be given final approval by the House and Senate before being sent to Gov. Deval Patrick.
Spokeswoman Kimberly Haberlin said the governor "has been strongly supportive of efforts to make our roads safer and will review the legislation when it reaches his desk."
This program aired on June 23, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.
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