CHATHAM — This week, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a new law that makes it illegal for people to use hand-held cell phones while driving. Among those who lobbied for years in favor of the law is the father of the late Katie Brannelly, who spent many summers in Chatham before her untimely death at the hands of a distracted driver in 2013.
“You can’t explain what you’ve gone through when you lose a kid,” Tom Brannelly said. The legislation offers reason for hope. “You really, truly don’t want somebody else to go through it.”
The legislation requires motorists to use the hands-free features of their cell phones in order to use them while driving. Police will issue warnings to drivers for first offenses of the new law until March 31, 2020, after which a $100 fine applies. Second-offenders will pay $250 and be required to take a safety course, and the fine increases to $500 for third and subsequent offenses.
The law also grants expanded access to traffic stop data, with the goal of improving transparency and public safety outcomes. It allows drivers to use GPS devices that are affixed to the vehicle and can be used with only a tap or a swipe of the finger. It also allows the use of handheld phones in an emergency
Legislation had been stalled for years over concerns that it would be abused by police as a means of conducting racial profiling. The bill that passed the legislature overwhelmingly passed last week requires police to report age, race and gender when issuing citations under the hands-free law, and holds law enforcement agencies accountable if data suggests those jurisdictions may be engaging in racial profiling. The state will also be creating a public awareness campaign informing and educating drivers on the dangers of using technological devices while driving.
The Brannelly family was one of four to advocate for the law, each touched by tragedy.
A 2006 graduate of Norwood High School, Katie spent summers here in Chatham with her family, learning to swim at the Oyster Pond, relishing Cape League baseball games, band concerts and trips to the Candy Manor. She attended Merrimack College and was a 24-year-old senior on the Dean's List at Bridgewater State University studying child psychology in March 2012. With just a few weeks to go before graduation, she joined her boyfriend Dom Rossi and her best friend Kerri King for dinner with friends. As the three crossed a street in downtown Norwood afterward to visit a pub where Katie worked, an inattentive driver failed to notice them. Rossi was able to push King out of the car's path, but he was struck along with Katie, who bore the brunt of the accident's force. Katie survived an additional 15 months, though she never fully regained her faculties.
Evidence later revealed that the 25-year-old driver's cell phone received eight text messages immediately preceding the accident. She was likely texting at the time.
“When I found out that the girl had eight texts on her phone, everything changed,” Mr. Brannelly said. He began campaigning to raise awareness of the problem of distracted driving, and connected with the other families who were pushing for legislation. The process was long and frustrating.
“I’ve been at it for six-and-a-half years,” Mr. Brannelly said. The state House of Representatives and Senate crafted very different bills, which were stuck in conference committee for months. Ultimately, the committee crafted language that both houses could endorse; among the members of the conference committee was Rep. Timothy Whelan, R–Brewster.
The bill passed the House on a 153-1 vote last Tuesday, and the Senate voted 38-1 in favor of the legislation Wednesday. Mr. Brannelly was among those present for that Senate vote, he and other advocates were recognized with a standing ovation.
Passage of the hands-free law is a victory, but for Mr. Brannelly, a bittersweet one. He visits the cemetery daily, and sees reminders of Katie everywhere. “You see purple, her favorite color, or you see somebody who looks like her,” he said, or sees Katie’s peers “getting married, having babies, getting jobs.” His family created a scholarship fund in Katie’s name, which helps keep her memory alive. And he’s confident that the hands-free legislation is worthwhile.
“The main thing, it’s going to save lives,” he said.