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With Distracted Driving Law On The Books, Mass. Looks Next To Red-Light Cameras

A traffic camera in California.
Theron Trowbridge
Creative Commons / flickr.com/photos/8404411@N05
A traffic camera in California.

When you're driving in your car this week to vote early in the Massachusetts presidential primary, make sure you aren't talking on your cellphone.

This is a big deal in the state, as it's trailed well behind neighboring states. It's now illegal to talk on a cellphone while driving unless you're using a hands-free device. That took effect Sunday.

Matt Murphy of the State House News Service joins us to talk about early voting, hands-free driving, and the week ahead in politics and government in Massachusetts.

Sam Hudzik, NEPR: It's going to be a while before drivers get tickets, right?

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: It is. There's going to be a bit of a grace period here. The state police said last week that they were going to be stepping up enforcement on the roads, putting more patrols out there, looking for distracted drivers — people who maybe didn't get the message, or haven't tuned into the news to see all the warnings that this law was going into effect.

But through March, if you do get pulled over, you're only going to be given a warning before the fines kick in — coincidentally, on April Fools’ Day. If you get pulled over after that, you'll start with a $100 fine and will escalate from there.

And Massachusetts is the last state in New England to do this.

Yes. All the states around Massachusetts have adopted this previously. Massachusetts, of course, had taken the incremental step some years ago to ban texting while driving. And that remains a punishable offense with fines during this grace period for the hands-free law. But police found that to be unenforceable, because there were all sorts of other excuses that people could use for touching their phones.

That is no longer the case. You need to be hands-free. And if you want to use your navigation system on your phone, it's supposed to be mounted on your windshield or on your center console and dashboard. So people will not be staring down at their phones, and have no excuse for handling them while they're behind the wheel.

In another traffic-related item, the state Senate is due to consider red-light cameras. The owners of cars caught blowing through intersections would get mailed the ticket. I'm well acquainted with these controversial tools from when I lived in Chicago, but what's the proposal looking like in Massachusetts?

Yeah, the Senate is taking up a bill from Senator Will Brownsberger. On Thursday, we're expecting a vote. And this would allow local communities to use these red-light cameras to look for infractions such as blowing through red lights, taking a right on red where they are not allowed, or even blocking intersections.

Fines, however, would be limited to just $25. And the cities and towns would be able to collect these penalties only to pay off the installation of these cameras before the money would start reverting to the state for transportation improvements. The idea here being not to use this as a revenue generator per se, but to try and change behavior, and encourage people to follow the rules of the road, not just when a cruiser is parked up ahead.

Also this week, early voting begins in Massachusetts. The polling place times vary with small towns allowed some more flexibility. But all of them have to offer early voting. And this is the first time Massachusetts has had early voting for the primaries, right?

It is. When early voting first came into effect in Massachusetts, the legislature put it in place just for the biennial state elections in November. But they have expanded it, now experimenting with this for the presidential primaries.

Starting Monday, in your cities and towns, there has to be at least some polling places where you vote that are open for early voting. And it will run through the end of the week ahead of the March 3 Super Tuesday primary, when most Massachusetts voters will head to the polls and pick a candidate.

We saw new polling coming out last week showing home-state Senator Elizabeth Warren running neck and neck with a Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders here, so it should be an interesting and high-turnout affair.

Finally, last week there was the first debate between Ed Markey and Joe Kennedy running for the U.S. Senate on the Democratic side. And you reported the race is also taking shape on the Republican side.

Yeah, this is not just going to be a Democratic primary this time around. Kevin O'Connor — he's a Boston-based attorney — has entered the field on the Republican side. So it looks like there will be a primary there between O'Connor and Shiva , the controversial MIT engineer and self-proclaimed inventor of email who ran in 2018 against Warren and Geoff Diehl. So — some interesting contests on both sides of that ballot.

Keep up here with Beacon Hill In 5.

Sam Hudzik has overseen local news coverage on New England Public Media since 2013. He oversees a team of about a dozen full- and part-time reporters and hosts.
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