Mass. Bill to Ban Texting While Driving Includes Insurance Surcharges

The Massachusetts House has approved a bill banning drivers from talking or texting on cell phones while behind the wheel, despite opposition from a lawmaker from a city where authorities say a man sending a message struck and killed a 13-year-old boy in a hit-and-run accident last month.

The bill, approved Wednesday on a 107-47 vote, authorizes police to pull over drivers they see talking on cell phones or sending text messages. Adult offenders would be subject to a $100 fine on the first offense. Hands-free headsets would be exempt.

“This is something that will save lives,” said Melissa Martin, whose 17-year-old daughter, Amanda, died last October in a car accident that she and police blame on text messaging.

Martin watched from the House gallery as lawmakers debated the bill. Her daughter was driving Oct. 17 in Charlton on her way to Bay Path High School, where she was a senior studying cosmetology, when she received a text message. Moments later, she car crashed into a tree.

“Our lives have been totally altered,” Martin said in an interview after the vote. “We’ll never be the same, that’s for sure. You worry about kids at night, not when they’re going to school.”

Other exemptions include anyone making an emergency call, and emergency workers.

It was another death that renewed the push for a ban. Taunton police say Earman Machado was killed Dec. 27 when Craig Bigos, 31, of New Bedford, allegedly veered off the road while typing a text message. Bigos pleaded not guilty to charges including motor vehicle homicide.

The most vocal opposition came from Taunton Rep. James Fagan, a Democrat who argued that it’s a giveaway to insurance companies that will impose surcharges on violators. He said a violation would cost him $140 per year in surcharges for six years.

“The ultimate beneficiary of this rotten piece of public policy will be the insurers of the commonwealth of Massachusetts,” he said.

Drivers can be distracted by smoking cigarettes, spilling coffee, applying makeup, and eating food but don’t face penalties, he said.

“Tragically there are occasions when through the exercise of poor judgment an accident and a tragedy occurs. No matter how much we try we cannot legislate that away,” said Fagan, a trial lawyer who said he has represented scofflaw drivers.

In a 12-minute speech, he accused colleagues of ignoring the Constitution.

“People frankly are too lazy to read it, too stupid to understand and too apathetic to stand up and fight for it,” he said. “Part of our foundation was to keep us free people. This is another instance where we become less free.”

Manuel Machado, father of the boy who was killed, supports the bill. His family declined to comment Wednesday, but he told The Boston Globe last week that the bill should pass: “We have to be aware of where we go so that we don’t claim an innocent victim on the street.”

Rep. Joseph Wagner, House chairman of the Transportation Committee, defended the bill. Insurance companies wouldn’t be able to apply surcharges until July 1, 2009.

“It will be up to insurance companies to determine whether or not they will assess a surcharge,” said Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat. “It’s no an absolute that there would be a surcharge.”

The bill, which moves to the Senate, would impose on adults $250 fines for a second offense and $500 thereafter. Those with junior operator licenses would face fines and the suspension of their licenses.