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New Hampshire Views: Treat phone-driving like drunk driving

What’s the difference between a driver who’s drunk and one who’s reading a text message on their cell phone?

There’s at least a fair chance that the drunk has their eyes on the road.

The issue of texting while driving has again been brought into the public discourse following a series of fatal accidents in the region, including a hit-and-run in Amherst a week ago that police say happened while the driver was paying attention to his cell phone.

Texting while driving is already a crime in New Hampshire. Except it’s not, really.

The truth is, New Hampshire’s distracted driving law contains huge loopholes and weak penalties.

The law states that: “A person operating a moving motor vehicle who writes a text message or uses two hands to type on or operate an electronic or telecommunications device, is guilty of a violation. A person does not write a text message when he or she reads, selects, or enters a phone number or name in a wireless communications device for the purpose of making a phone call.”

In other words, the state views texting like a speeding ticket. The law sends the message that it’s okay for drivers to take their eyes off the road to punch in phone numbers or names to make a call. Just make sure you only use one hand. And if drivers get caught texting? They get whacked for a hundred bucks, maximum.

Phone-driving is not a personal liberties issue like seat belts and motorcycle helmets. Motorists who eschews the helmet or seat belt may put themselves in greater danger if they crash, but the risk to others is usually negligible. Punching the buttons of a phone while driving heightens the risk to others, even if it’s legal.

Whether it’s texting, dialing somebody’s number or reading an incoming email, it amounts to the same thing: inattention.

Every time there’s a fatal accident that doesn’t involve speed or alcohol, we all look at one another and make the same assumption: “Texting.” It’s time to end the charade and give New Hampshire a distracted driving law that wasn’t written by cell phone and telecommunications companies.

We’ll concede that phone usage isn’t the only form of distracted driving, and distracted driving isn’t the only threat to motorists. For instance, the Everett Turnpike from the Bedford tolls to the Massachusetts line is a particularly lawless stretch of highway, punctuated by motorists recklessly weaving in and out of traffic at speeds that would make the most callous Boston driver blush. Then you have GPS, satellite radio, email and other apps and functions – not to mention those who apply makeup, eat, drink and read while they drive.

But just because highway dangers take many forms is no reason to let cell phones off the hook. They are a threat on a par with drunken driving and need to be treated that way.

There is strong evidence that people are dying because drivers take their eyes off the road to use their phones. Are those lives the price we’re willing to pay for technological freedom?

New Hampshire needs a real distracted driving law – a hands-free provision that treats reading messages, emails or dialing phone numbers as the technological equivalent of drunken driving. We can’t stop every instance of phone-driving, but we can close those loopholes that send the message that it’s okay to pay attention to your phone instead of the road. Once we strengthen the laws, we can make enforcement a priority on a par with DUI.

It’s a cause that should be taken up forthwith by lawmakers and the governor. Doing nothing makes about as much sense as legalizing drinking and driving.

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