Gov. Baker Signs Distracted Driving Bill; Legislators Delayed Over Tracking Police Profiling

Sen. Joseph Boncore, who co-chaired the conference committee that negotiated the final distracted driving bill, said Monday that the new law makes an “effort of transparency” to improve public access to data on traffic stops. (Chris Lisinski/SHNS.)

Lawmakers responsible for a new law designed to take phones out of motorists’ hands defended its approach to preventing certain communities from being targeted for enforcement, arguing Monday that the profiling language is an improvement from the status quo, despite concerns from some civil rights groups.

The new law prohibits the use of virtually all handheld device use behind the wheel, and it also updates how state agencies monitor police departments for disproportionate enforcement of traffic laws on women or people of color.

However, the final version that was signed by Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday does not go as far as some activists had hoped. Rahsaan Hall, racial justice program director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, described it last week as “one step forward, two steps back.”

The original Senate bill would have required police to note the age, gender and perceived ethnicity of every driver pulled over by police, regardless of the stop’s outcome. The state would have collected and analyze the information from police every year, omitting badge numbers for privacy reasons and making both the findings and the raw data available to the public.

Civil rights groups advocated for that level of transparency to be enshrined in law, but the compromise bill that emerged from a conference committee was less expansive, only requiring the state to release anonymized data and a report from an outside agency once a year.

“The conference committee was very sensitive to this issue,” said Sen. Joseph Boncore, the committee’s Senate chair, during the signing ceremony. “Any time we expand the authority of law enforcement on the roadway, we create inherent civil liberty issues for people. This is a road safety bill, and we want everyone to feel safe on the side of the road.”

Rep. Joseph Wagner, one of the House conferees, conceded that the disagreement among negotiators on how to write the data collection component stalled discussion for months. The Chicopee Democrat said he was “pleased to have gotten to the place we got to” as a compromise.

Under the law Baker signed, only traffic stops ending in citations will be monitored, although any police department found to have engaged in profiling will have to record data at every stop for a year and undergo bias training. The state will send information out to a third party for a review and report every year.

The raw data sent to the agency will be kept confidential, but the state will also release an annual aggregate summary of traffic stops by department involved, driver characteristics, and time of day. Officials will take steps to protect anonymity of motorists and officers involved.

“It’s a step forward for the legislature to acknowledge racial disparities in traffic stops as a problem, but a missed opportunity to effectively address it,” Hall said in a statement after lawmakers released the compromise bill. “Despite the Senate’s best efforts to increase data collection and transparency, this bill simply repackages existing law on data collection and imposes new limits on data access.”

A 2000 law required police to record the race and gender of every driver cited, and it similarly called for an annual report by a university on whether any departments appear to have profiled motorists. Only one report was ever published, and supporters sought the new language as an update and improve monitoring practices.

“We now ensure that this data is collected every year and it’s annualized in a report,” Boncore said, describing “an effort of transparency” to make data for individual law enforcement departments publicly available. “There was a real sense of, ‘how do we really manage whether or not this is a problem if we’re not measuring it?’ and this bill ensures we’re measuring that.”

Dissatisfaction with the monitoring language — rather than with the underlying ban on handheld cellphone use while driving — pushed two lawmakers to vote against the legislation as it advanced to Baker’s desk this week.

Rep. Chynah Tyler, a Boston Democrat, cast the only no vote in the House on Tuesday. In a newsletter to constituents that evening, she said she agreed that a hands-free bill is necessary but felt it was important to support broader data collection.

“I have heard from many of you about tense interactions with law enforcement while on the road,” Tyler wrote. "As a member of the Public Safety committee, it is my duty to change the narrative and to work towards better relationships with our law enforcement. Collecting data from all traffic stops — regardless of whether they result in a citation — would have ensured that we can reached (sic) our goal of having unbiased policing.”

Sen. Becca Rausch, the Needham Democrat who had previously expressed concerns that a compromise would scale back the Senate’s proposal, also voted against the final bill. She said after the session that she “could not get to yes because of the data provisions.”

“Given my experience in our state government working specifically with data, I have serious concerns about the path the data will take pursuant to this bill and the absence of checks on that data,” she said.

Several other legislators flagged similar concerns, but ultimately voted for the bill.

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