Now Mass. should target distracted pedestrians

As legislation goes, this was a buzzer-beater, but lawmakers finally ended their stalemate over a distracted driving bill Monday, and a compromise bill requiring hands-free use of electronic devices behind the wheel can move forward.

A six-member conference committee filed a report with the House clerk’s office, the House and Senate are expected to vote on it and send a bill to Gov. Charlie Baker by Wednesday.

The sticking point had been the collection of demographic data, but this version of the bill doesn’t require raw traffic stop data to be published.

If passed — and there’s no reason to think it won’t — Massachusetts would be the last state in the region to have a distracted driving law. It’s about time.

A  hands-free bill has been making the legislative rounds for a decade, too late for the crowd of about 100 gathered in front of the State House Sunday to recite the names of 72 victims of roadway crashes in Massachusetts.

As the Herald’s Erin Tiernan reported, Stacy Thompson of LivableStreets Alliance told the crowd that getting legislation passed is critical to reducing pedestrian and cyclist injuries and fatalities.

Having a cellphone is a ubiquitous necessity of modern life — even if the only urgent need compelling one to text while driving is to let someone know they’re on the way.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of drivers who report using a cellphone behind the wheel has jumped 30% since 2013. Nearly half (49%) of drivers report recently talking on a hand-held cellphone while driving, and one in three (35%) sent a text or e-mail while driving. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety performed a study that indicated that crash risk was 2-6 times greater when drivers were using a cellphone compared with when they were not distracted.

Using a cellphone is hardwired now, whether we’re walking, talking with another person or driving. Getting people to stop texting or using a cellphone manually while driving won’t be easy, but this bill has some fiscal incentives. If one violates the law, it’s a $100 ticket for the first offense, a $250 fine for a second offense and $500 for a third.

There are probably many who are thinking, “Well, I just won’t get caught.” And this is where a crucial part of this anti-distracted driving campaign has to be in place. Once the bill is signed into law, enforcement must be stringent. Even if that means putting extra manpower on the streets and roadways for a while, it’s worth it.

The message has to be loud and clear that Massachusetts means business now — no texting, no holding your phone, no driving. A few pricey fines will help underscore the importance of the directive.

But if we really want to keep our streets safe, lawmakers should next address distracted pedestrians — those who head into crosswalks without enough time on the light counter, or  into traffic as cars are turning, because they are texting, heads down, as they walk.

YouTube is filled with humorous videos of cellphone users, oblivious to their surroundings, walking into fountains or poles. But when drivers are obeying the rules and must slam on their brakes because a bent-necked Samsung scribe is having a text conversation, that’s far from from funny. That’s just plain dangerous.


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