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Proposal would ban texting at wheel

City councilors promote measure

By Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / December 8, 2009

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Motorists would be barred from texting or typing on a mobile phone while driving in Boston, under a plan city councilors hope will spur the state to impose a statewide ban.

Councilor John M. Tobin, who is crafting the measure, hopes that other communities pass bans and that state lawmakers act on up to 15 similar bills that have languished in the State House.

“I don’t think we can wait any longer,’’ Tobin said during a hearing yesterday at which the council’s Committee on Public Safety heard from proponents of the measure, including the American Automobile Association, the Safe Roads Alliance, and the Boston Police Department.

Tobin expects councilors to sign off on the proposal and send it to the mayor by Dec. 16. The measure before the City Council would require approval by the Legislature as a home rule petition.

“I see it; everyone knows it is dangerous,’’ said Boston Police Superintendent William Evans. “Other states have recognized this. I think this is a no-brainer. There is no way you can text and have your eyes on your [vehicle].’’

Mary McGuire, director of public and legislative affairs for AAA Southern New England, said texting while driving is particularly dangerous for young drivers. Traffic accidents, she said, are the leading cause of death for people 16-20 years of age, and an estimated two-thirds of people 18-24 text while driving. “It’s such a dangerous combination,’’ she said.

Tobin said a person who texts or types a message while driving is 23 percent more likely to have an accident than someone who is slightly intoxicated.

The proposed measure would probably include a “primary enforcement’’ stipulation, allowing police to stop anyone who texts while driving without any additional cause.

The committee is considering what penalties to attach to the measure and is looking at cities such as Toledo, Ohio, which has a ban and penalties ranging from a $150 fine for a first offense to up to 6 months in jail and a $1,000 fine for a third. Nineteen states, including Rhode Island and Connecticut, have bans on text messaging, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Tobin’s goal is to put pressure on the Legislature to pass one of the more than 15 bills pending on Beacon Hill that would regulate texting or using a cellphone without a hands-free device while driving.

In June, Mayor Thomas M. Menino announced a policy that banned city employees from typing text messages while operating city-owned vehicles. Earlier that month, the Legislature’s Transportation Committee heard testimony on the 15 bills.

In 2007, cellphone use was a contributing factor in 435 vehicle crashes in the state, according to reports submitted to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, said Ann C. Dufresne, senior communications adviser for Registrar Rachel Kaprielian.

In 2008, a preliminary number of crashes in which mobile phone use was a factor was 396, Dufresne said in June. But both figures are probably low because of the varying circumstances of each crash, she said.

Last year, a New Bedford man was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in jail after he hit and killed a 13-year-old boy riding a bicycle on a dark street in Taunton in 2007. The driver told authorities he was texting and thought he had hit a mailbox.

At yesterday’s hearing, Tobin and Councilor at Large Stephen J. Murphy recounted experiences involving texting while driving. Murphy said he saw a driver on the expressway text messaging while using her knees to control the steering wheel. And Tobin said he stopped texting while driving after watching a graphic public service announcement created in Britain on the dangers.