BOSTON – National and state leaders urged passage of a Baker administration bill to improve road safety at a packed legislative hearing Thursday, arguing that Massachusetts needs to more strictly enforce seat belt use and crack down on handheld device use in order to save lives.
Representatives from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the state Department of Transportation opened Thursday's hearing before the Joint Committee on Transportation with remarks in favor of a bill (S 7) filed by Gov. Charlie Baker that proposes a wide range of new regulations aimed at reducing motor vehicle crashes.
The bill would allow police to enforce seat belt use requirements without first identifying another offense, require all OUI offenders to use an ignition interlock system, restrict the use of mobile devices by drivers, and more.
"Today, sadly, Massachusetts has among the lowest seatbelt rates in the country, the only state lacking any provision for ignition interlocks for first-time offenders, and the last state in New England to pass a hands-free law," said Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack.
In 2017, only about three in four Massachusetts drivers used seatbelts on any given trip, the second-lowest rate among all states, according to testimony from Executive Office of Public Safety and Security Director of Highway Safety Jeff Larason. That rate increased to 80 percent in 2018, but even with the improvement the Commonwealth was still well below the national average of 90 percent.
Despite the lower-than-average seatbelt usage rates, Massachusetts still compares favorably to the rest of the country in roadway safety overall, Pollack said. Highway fatalities have decreased almost 20 percent since 2006, but she stressed "that is not good enough."
"Every life matters, and to move with urgency toward zero deaths, we need to do more than we are doing," Pollack said.
One key proposal in both Baker's bill and in several others considered at Thursday's hearing would update provisions on distracted driving. Currently, state law bans texting while driving, but given the growth in apps, the Baker administration and others want a more extensive policy prohibiting drivers from using all mobile devices unless in hands-free mode.
The proposed measure would cut down on avoidable crashes and reduce fatality rates, according to NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg.
"Strengthen the law, and lives will be saved," Landsberg said. "Turn on to driving, tune in to paying attention, and let's drop out of this dangerous and addictive behavior."
Several speakers recounted losing family members to drunk drivers, citing those cases as reason for Massachusetts to require all OUI offenders to use an interlock device that prevents a car from operating if the driver is impaired, something several bills propose.
"The interlocks save lives," said Helen Witty, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, whose daughter died while rollerblading after being struck by a vehicle whose driver was intoxicated. "The data's there. We've given you the information. These interlocks are proven to save lives. I urge you, MADD urges you, I beg you to pass this legislation."
No explicit opposition was raised at Thursday's hearing to any of the road safety proposals or the push for licenses to include a non-binary gender option, but several speakers did raise concerns that any action to expand seatbelt and mobile-device laws should consider the risk of racial profiling.
Rahsaan Hall, racial justice program director for the American Civil Liberties Union's Massachusetts chapter, said the proposals are valuable but that they should not proceed without measures requiring law enforcement to collect demographic data regarding traffic stops. That information — which had been gathered from 2000 to 2004 but not afterward — would help track potential disparities in how the new laws are enforced, Hall said.
"Racial profiling is a very serious situation and it has very real implications and consequences," Hall said. "Black and Latinx folks are more likely to be stopped than white drivers. They're more likely to have a hostile encounter with a police officer when they are stopped. They're more likely to be searched or have their vehicle searched."
Other lawmakers filed their own versions of legislation aimed at improving safety on the state's often congested roads. More than three dozen bills were before the Transportation Committee at Thursday's hearing, ranging in scope from Baker's wide-reaching package to a Sen. Joseph Boncore bill proposing to regulate electric scooters and a Rep. Tommy Vitolo bill extending pedestrian right-of-way in crosswalks to bicyclists and other riders.
Boncore, one of the committee's co-chairs, said members will work to synthesize different ideas on the table into viable legislation.
"A lot of the different pieces of legislation bring up a lot of good points at a very granular level," he said. "It's up to the committee to take those different parts and report out a bill that encompasses everyone's thoughts and concerns on these issues."