BOSTON (WWLP) – Sen. Mark Montigny rose toward the end of a formal session Thursday and slammed the ongoing delays holding up a distracted-driving bill that’s a top public safety priority for most members of the Legislature.
Montigny has been pushing for the bill for more than a decade, and as a conference committee tasked with privately negotiating a compromise between Senate and House versions enters its fourth month of closed-doors talks, he has joined advocacy groups and families affected by crashes in ramping up pressure.
The criticism may not stop there: if a deal is not announced soon, Montigny said, he plans to make remarks on the Senate floor every week until the long-sought bill is resolved.
“I’ve been on the floor maybe 50 times in 15 years talking about hands-free and the only thing that has changed is the families I have worked with no longer want to hear any excuses, even from someone who has been one of their longest-time champions,” Montigny said in his remarks. “I don’t blame them. It’s 2019. It’s okay to have legitimate policy disputes, but when a bill has been heard over and over and over and negotiated over and over and over, at some point, no matter what we have to do, we have to say enough is enough.”
Montigny said he first filed a bill that would ban almost all handheld electronic device use while driving in 2004, but the closest the Legislature came was a 2010 law against texting while driving.
Police have said the existing law is unenforceable because it does not explicitly cover navigation, dialing phone calls or a range of now-common apps, but efforts to pass new legislation requiring hands-free use while driving have stalled for years.
After two straight sessions of the Senate passing a bill but the House not taking it up, Montigny said he was encouraged that both branches acted quickly on the matter this year. But the conference committee has been discussing the matter since June 19, and an “agreement in principle” they reached on July 31 fell apart a few hours later over concerns Senate members had with the language in a draft bill.
Members involved in those negotiations have spoken vaguely — and at times contradictingly — about how the talks are going. Both chairs, Sen. Joseph Boncore and Rep. William Straus, have said they continue to work together and that the bill is a priority, but House conferees have also said they believe the agreement reached on July 31 was final and that they are waiting for their Senate counterparts to sign on.
Montigny’s remarks came one day after Maine implemented its own version of a hands-free law, a development that his office said makes Massachusetts the only state in New England without similar provisions on the books.
Families affected by distracted-driving crashes met with Senate President Karen Spilka on Wednesday to press for passage of the bill, but walked away frustrated at what crash survivor Joann Arsenault described as “a lot of excuses.”
Advocacy groups are planning a Sept. 26 press conference at the State House if the matter is not settled by then.
“We just need to get the phone out of people’s hands,” said Emily Stein, president of the Safe Roads Alliance. “It’s as clear as that.”