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Hub acts to ban driver texting

Police could issue $100 fine on spot

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / December 17, 2009

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The state’s largest city took a major step yesterday toward banning texting while driving, adding considerable momentum to a campaign to outlaw the dangerous but ubiquitous practice statewide.

The Boston City Council voted unanimously in favor of a driver’s texting ban. Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who in June banned city workers from texting while driving, said he would sign it right away.

The ban now needs approval by the Legislature, which is already weighing more than a dozen bills to keep motorists from texting.

“When a city of the size and importance of Boston makes a bold statement, I think it sends a message about traffic safety that resonates across the state,’’ said Mary Maguire, director of public and legislative affairs for AAA Southern New England. “Driving in Boston is certainly quite challenging, so if Boston feels that traffic safety is enhanced through a ban on texting while driving, then it sends a very meaningful and important message to the Commonwealth.’’

Under Boston’s ban, any driver in the city who “sends, reads, or writes a text message’’ using a mobile phone or other wireless device, other than a mounted global positioning system, while the car is moving would be guilty of a civil law violation. The texting driver would face penalties of $100 for the first offense, and $200 and $300 for second and third offenses committed within a year.

Police could stop drivers they spot texting or those whom they have “reasonable grounds’’ to suspect of doing it.

The Massachusetts House approved a ban last year on texting while driving, and the state Senate passed a similar measure in May, but the bills died before reaching the governor’s desk. Governor Deval Patrick has said he supports such a ban, as does Ray LaHood, the US secretary of transportation.

“The governor supports efforts to limit unsafe driving habits, such as texting while driving,’’ Patrick’s office said in a statement. “As for any specific piece of legislation, we would obviously want to see what the bill looks like before making any decision.’’

Opposition in the Legislature has come from lawmakers who argue that the bans are ineffective because the state cannot legislate good driving, and from other lawmakers who argue that texting bans are too narrow and should be replaced by a measure to cover all use of cellphones by drivers.

“At some point, you realize it’s just being held up by inertia or by the limited agendas of a small number of folks,’’ said Senator Mark C. Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat who first proposed a statewide ban six years ago. “I hope we will use the energy of the Boston City Council to push aside those who have stood in the way. It’s long overdue, and it’s costing lives every week . . . and it’s particularly young people who are vulnerable.’’

Senator Steven Baddour, cochairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said he is hopeful a statewide ban will pass next year. He said Boston’s ban is “helpful in that it will bring attention back to the issue.’’

Nineteen states plus Washington, D.C., currently ban texting while driving. On Nov. 9, Rhode Island became the latest state to outlaw the practice.

Texting is “the most all-encompassing, most distracting, and most dangerous’’ habit for drivers, Maguire said. “We believe that texting and driving are like oil and water. They just don’t mix.’’

One recent study of long-haul truckers who were filmed while driving over 18 months found that when the drivers were texting, their risk of crashing was 23 times greater than when not texting. Another study, which used a driving simulator to evaluate drivers’ ability to multitask, found that texting multiplied the risk of a crash by a factor of eight.

Even cellphone companies, which long opposed prohibitions on cellphone use while driving, have thrown their support behind texting bans.

Boston’s proposed ban sailed through the City Council with the support of the mayor, the Police Department, and the American Automobile Association Southern New England, which also backs a nationwide ban.

Councilor John M. Tobin Jr. proposed the ban. A self-described “reformed texter while driving,’’ he said he was spurred to action after watching a graphic public service announcement from Britain that shows young people who are texting in a car end up in a violent crash.

Tobin said officials in six other communities have contacted him in the last week to express interest in passing bans in their own communities. The issue also gained attention after a crash in May involving a Green Line trolley driver who was allegedly texting his girlfriend.

“Judging from the e-mails and phone calls that have come across the state on this one, I know there’s an appetite for this in the state,’’ Tobin said.

Menino’s spokeswoman, Dot Joyce, released a statement after the vote, saying, “It’s the right thing to do for public safety and he will sign it right away.’’

The ban passed during the final council session of the year, a day that also saw councilors narrowly defeat proposed term limits for the mayor and for the City Council. Councilors voted, 7-6, against limiting the mayor to two four-year terms or to three four-year terms. They also voted, 8-5, against limiting councilors to six two-year terms.

The council unanimously approved a measure that would give police the power to arrest anyone who they have “probable cause’’ to believe did not pay a taxi fare. Currently, officers can make such an arrest only when they witness the person evading a fare, said Councilor Rob Consalvo, who sponsored the measure. The bill also needs approval by the Legislature.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.