N.H. House passes bill to ban use of hand-held cell phones while driving
The House passed a bill yesterday, 192-133, that would ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving, putting New Hampshire a step closer to joining 12 states with similar laws.
“Isn’t it time to address this problem of distracted driving?” asked Rep. George Sykes, a Lebanon Democrat.
New Hampshire already has a law banning texting while driving. This bill would extend that ban to cover all use of a hand-held cell phone, including talking, surfing the internet or using a navigation system. Under the bill, no one under age 18 could use any cellular communication while driving, even with hands-free devices. Fines would start at $100 for the first violation, $250 for the second and $500 for the third within a two-year period.
The ban does not extend to hands-free devices for adults, and there was some confusion yesterday as to what actions and devices that covers. Sykes, who is on the committee that heard the bill, said drivers would still be allowed to use Bluetooth devices or cell systems built into their vehicle, as long as it requires only the push of a button. Drivers could also pre-enter a destination into a cell phone navigation system and listen to the system while driving.
Opponents of the bill said it would be foolish to enact another law because the distracted driving statutes that already exist aren’t being enforced. The bill would also make it illegal for someone to use their cell phone when stopped at a traffic light.
“This bill unfairly suggests all users of cell phones or electronic devices are distracted. The vast majority of drivers have been operating their vehicles safely for years, even before hands-free technology hit the market. We should be enforcing distracted driving laws as they stand, rather than ending the use of cell phones for everyone,” House Minority Leader Gene Chandler, a Bartlett Republican, said in a statement after the vote.
Other opponents said they were worried the bill would prevent people from responding to family emergencies. The bill exempts calls to 911 or other emergency services, but would prohibit a driver from answering a call from a family member that could be about an emergency.
“We don’t need broad, overbearing laws that dictate when someone should take that emergency call,” said Rep. Tim O’Flaherty, a Manchester Democrat.
But supporters said the bill is about safety, arguing too many fatal accidents are the result of distracted driving. Rep. Karel Crawford, a Center Harbor Republican, teaches driving classes for young drivers and said the provision banning all cell phone use for drivers under 18 was particularly important.
“The less distraction teens have while driving, the safer they and the general public will be,” she said.
Rep. Steven Smith, a Charlestown Republican, called the bill a pro-liberty bill. People should have the right to walk down the street and not be worried they or their children will be hit by a distracted driver, he said.
“I can’t believe that anyone would make the argument that it is so vital that they get that call, right now, this instant, that they can ignore my children,” he said.
The bill will now go to the Republican-led Senate.
Business profits tax
The House killed a bill, 173-163, that would have taxed large nonprofits such as hospitals and universities under the Business Enterprise Tax. Rep. David Hess, a Hooksett Republican and the prime sponsor, encouraged his colleagues to send the bill to interim study for further discussion, but the House killed it outright.
Under the bill, any nonprofit bringing in more than $1.5 million in annual revenue would have been subject to the tax. The state’s Business Enterprise Tax is currently set at 75 cents per $1,000 of taxable enterprise value, but the bill would have reduced it to 68 cents.
The state’s business tax base is shrinking, while major organizations such as hospitals are acting like for-profits and avoiding taxes, Hess said. Many of the state’s largest nongovernmental employers are nonprofits that are exempt from this tax, he said.
Hess said he did not believe it would pass when he introduced the bill, but he wanted to start a conversation.
“The system is currently unfair, and it’s flawed and we need to address it,” he said.
But Rep. Susan Almy, a Lebanon Democrat, said the bill was problematic and could have unintended consequences on smaller charities. She did not believe the bill was worthy of interim study.
“We cannot leave these organizations hanging in terror while we study this bill; please just kill it,” she said.
Sexual assault law
A bill that would have altered the state’s simple assault law was defeated, 171-103, after emotional appeals by several House members.
The current law defines simple assault as purposely or knowingly causing bodily injury or engaging in unprivileged physical contact with another. This bill would have changed it to include only actions that the actor knows the other person would deem offensive, threatening or provocative.
Advocates of the change said it would protect people from frivolous lawsuits, but opponents said it would diminish the state’s ability to protect children against “grooming behaviors” by adults. A child cannot be expected to reasonably know when certain behaviors are offensive or provocative, said Rep. Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat.
“We’d send a clear message if we (changed this), that in New Hampshire we don’t take grooming of children as a crime,” Cushing said.
But Rep. Kelleigh Murphy, a Bedford Republican, shared her own story of facing assault charges and urged her colleagues to support the change. In 2009, an employee at a restaurant she owned with her husband accused Murphy of assault. Murphy said she touched the employee on the shoulder to bring her attention to a waiting customer. That employee brought charges months later when she was let go for cause, Murphy said. The ordeal was embarrassing and painful, and changing the language of the law could help prevent it, she said.
Cushing, however, said there should be a way to fix that problem without putting children at risk.
∎ A bill to overhaul and strengthen charitable gambling regulations passed the House on a voice vote without debate. The bill creates a regulatory structure for charitable gambling.
∎ The House defeated a bill, 184-148, to decrease the meals portion of the rooms-and-meals tax from 9 to 8 percent. The reduction would have reduced revenue from the tax by roughly $24 million.
∎ The House also defeated a bill, 144-119, that would have required the state Department of Education to share costs of implementing new statewide tests with local school districts.
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kronayne.)