Beacon Hill is locked in a stalemate over a bill that would ban the use of electronic devices while driving, but the reasons behind why lawmakers can't get to yes is more about legislators' fears of racial discrimination than their concerns about distracted driving.
There's wide agreement on the need to prevent distracted driving, but an effort to attach the bill mandating "hands-free" driving to requirements to publicly release police data about traffic stops has kept House and Senate negotiators locked in secret talks, preventing the measure from becoming law.
Senate negotiators, the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights organizations think giving police the authority to stop drivers for handling phones will lead to more profiling and harassment of black and Latino drivers. They say making public location, race and gender data about each stop will show which police departments pull over disproportionate numbers of minorities.
House negotiators disagree. Mattapoisett Rep. William Straus, chairman of the Transportation Committee, said there's too much private information contained in traffic stop data that could be used to identify individuals, especially when combined with other available databases, even if names are stripped from the traffic stop information.
Strauss is unlikely to back down on the biggest point of contention: whether or not to require researchers who access the racial data to sign nondisclosure agreements so that information about who is stopped and where is not made public.
"Privacy rights are for all people, not just gender or racial minorities. This is about the data that is being collected and will continue to be collected on the entire population," Straus said.
Richard Levitan lost his daughter Merritt to a distracted driver. Levitan came to the State House Thursday to tell Democratic leaders to finally come up with legislative language that will satisfy all parties.
"Compromise," Levitan said. "Put the bill on the governor's desk later today or tomorrow, so that Massachusetts can be safer for all of its citizens."
Compromise, which all parties say they want, could come in the form of splitting the bill up.
Levitan acknowledges that racial profiling is a problem, but he said he doesn't think it should stand in the way of passing a "hands-free" law.
"Reconcile the differences and put this bill on the governor's desk to be signed into law, then I ask the leadership ... [to] commit strongly to immediately pursuing separate legislation to address data collection and analysis," Levitan said.
Neither House Speaker Robert DeLeo nor Senate President Karen Spilka is willing to commit to a separate racial profiling bill. DeLeo said earlier this week he'd have to see what the proposal looked like after it comes out of Straus' committee. Spilka, appearing on WGBH's Boston Public Radio, said negotiators should be able to arrive at an agreeable compromise.
It doesn't seem like the ACLU and Senate will budge on making data about traffic stops and race available for study. And the House isn't backing down on keeping the racial data under wraps.
In an interview with WGBH News, Straus said he thinks he's doing more to champion the ACLU's mission to protect Americans' private data "than a couple of people over at their offices right now."
"It shocks me no end that an organization with its reputation ... would be advocating for essentially the public release of what is otherwise private location, mobility data about our population," Straus added.
In a statement, ACLU Racial Justice Director Rahsaan Hall said he and his colleagues appreciate that Straus shares concerns about protecting people's data and that the ACLU and 15 other civil rights groups want lawmakers to pass a version of the bill requiring names, addresses and other personal information be removed from the traffic stop data when made public.
"What this coalition opposes is using non-disclosure agreements to hide important information about government activity from the public," Hall said.
Stalemate continues. Driving with a phone in your hand, illegal in the rest of New England and New York, is still legal in Massachusetts.