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Lawmakers Consider Cellphone Driving Ban

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A soft-spoken mother silenced the usually talkative legislators on the state Joint Committee on Transportation Thursday.

"This silly device is all we have left of her," Melissa Martin said. She held up a small black cellphone that her 17-year-old daughter, Amanda, had been using to send or receive a text message when she veered off the road in October 2007. The car struck a tree. Amanda died soon after, her mother said.

"The car was destroyed. The only thing that made it through the crash was this cellphone," Martin told the committee. "Texting should be banned across the board, juniors and adults."

Martin was among a group of lawmakers, public safety officials and transportation advocates to testify on more than a dozen bills limiting the use of cellphones while driving.

Several recent accidents, including an MBTA Green Line crash caused by a T driver who admits to texting his girlfriend at the time, have propelled some to ask whether in-car cellphone use is a public safety hazard.

"Texting while driving has become the new drunk driving," said Rep. Peter Koutoujian, D-Waltham, one of those who testified. "You can tell someone is on their cellphone just by the way they're driving."

National surveys show significant support for a ban on texting, Koutoujian said, citing a recent Harris Poll. While 90 percent of those polled believe using a cellphone while driving is dangerous, more than 60 percent said they used their phone when behind the wheel. Twenty-five-percent admitted to sending or receiving texts while driving.

"We're seeing an increase in motor vehicle accidents where the contributing factor is the driver or the pedestrian is distracted," said Superintendent Daniel Linskey of the Boston Police Department. "Technology has gotten ahead of the laws."

The 15 bills under consideration range from a ban on texting by drivers younger than 18, to proposals that would limit any cellphone use to hands-free units.

A budget amendment that would ban texting while driving recently passed the Senate. The legislative conference committee has not yet released its final budget.

Laws curbing driving while distracted already exist, said Rep. Joseph Wagner, D-Chicopee, House chairman of the transportation committee. "Thirteen thousand citations were issued in the Commonwealth for distracted driving in 2008," Wagner said.

But Wagner noted that the state distracted driving law explicitly exempts use of mobile telephones from its list of citable offenses.

"It is inconsistent that we have a distracted driving law... but we have a carve out for someone to hold a cellphone, which is clearly a distraction," Wagner said. Wagner added that he supports legislation that would ban both texting and cellphone use without a hands-free device.

A strict ban does not enjoy similar support in the Senate. "Plenty of people in the Commonwealth can do more than one thing at a time," said Sen. Stephen Baddour, D-Methuen, committee co-chair.

"There are certain things we can't correct legislatively. Common sense should dictate," he said. "The problem isn't just holding the phone. It's talking."

Baddour said an outright ban on cellphones is unrealistic, but he supports a ban on texting by drivers under 18. "Unfortunately, there's just a generational problem," he said.

This program aired on June 11, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Meghna Chakrabarti Twitter Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.

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