Lawmakers to consider cell phone use behind the wheel – again
Next month, lawmakers will consider – for at least the ninth time in 14 years – prohibiting drivers from talking or reading text messages on a cell phone while driving unless they use a hands-free device. With regret, sponsors believe the mounting number of cell phone-related accidents may make their legislative fight easier this time around.
“Just look at the number of fatalities in the last week and a half,” said Rep. Sylvia Gale, a Nashua Democrat sponsoring one of two bills dealing with cell phone use this session. “What more do you want?”
Just before Christmas, a retired fire chief from Amherst was killed while getting his mail when he was hit by a 20-year-old man who told the police he was texting while driving. The driver, Travis Hobbs of Mont Vernon, has been charged with negligent homicide. That same week, a Brookline mother of three was killed when her SUV was rear-ended by a truck driven by 31-year-old Greg Cullen of Milford, the police said. The police have ruled out speed and alcohol as factors and said they are investigating whether cell phone usage or another type of distracted driving played a role.
There are almost no restrictions on cell phone use behind the wheel in New Hampshire, and in that regard, New Hampshire is not unusual. Only 12 states have adopted the hands-free cell phone law that New Hampshire lawmakers will consider next year, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Gale’s bill focuses only on cell phone use. The second bill, sponsored by Rep. Laura Pantelakos, a Portsmouth Democrat, aims to prohibit all forms of distracted driving but identifies cell phone, video game and computer use as particular offenses.
The exception to New Hampshire’s lack of cell phone restrictions dates to 2009, when lawmakers made it illegal to compose a text message while driving; 40 other states have done the same, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. But the New Hampshire law does not prohibit drivers from reading a text message while driving.
That distinction, however, is before the state Supreme Court, which is considering the appeal of Chad Belleville of Barnstead, who is serving 3½ to seven years in prison for vehicular assault and second-degree assault. According to court records, Belleville looked down at his cell phone in December 2010 to read a text message just before he veered across the center line and hit an oncoming car.
At oral arguments in October, Belleville’s lawyer, David Rothstein, told the justices, “I don’t know that looking down at your cell phone is different than looking back at your kids who spit up while you’re driving.” The court has not issued its opinion.
The two bills going before lawmakers would not only make Belleville’s actions more clearly illegal but also make it easier for the police to intervene when they suspect prohibited cell phone use.
Gale’s bill would prohibit anyone except police officers, firefighters and other emergency personnel responding to an emergency situation from holding a cell phone while driving. Making calls via bluetooth technology, which allows drivers to place and have conversations without touching a phone, would be allowed. Violators could be fined up to $100.
The police have charged drivers with reckless driving or even negligent homicide in cases where drivers were using cell phones while driving. Lynne Dion of Franklin is serving a one- to three-year sentence for fatally hitting a woman while the woman was in a Franklin crosswalk. Dion was talking on her cell phone just before the crash, the police said.
Gale said her bill would make it easier for the police to stop illegal – and potentially dangerous – cell phone use before an accident. The proposed legislation says, “An operator of a motor vehicle who holds a cellular telephone to, or in the immediate proximity of, his or her ear while such vehicle is in motion, is presumed to be engaging in a call within the meaning of this section.”
Gale said she sponsored the bill at the request of a constituent who said he had been put in danger by drivers distracted by their cell phones. Rep. Sally Kelly, a Chichester Democrat, decided to co-sponsor the bill in part because of injuries she suffered in 2009 when another driver hit her head-on on Route 4. Kelly broke several bones and used a wheelchair for months, she said.
“It’s frustrating when I see the increase in fatalities,” she said. “We are doing way too many things while we are driving, myself included. Not speaking on the phone (while driving) is the best, but the reality is . . . we can’t be that separated from our communications. We feel compelled to talk on the phone in the car.”
Requiring that those conversations be done hands-free is a compromise that will make people safer, she said.
Pantelakos’s bill would also require drivers to use a hands-free device to communicate while driving. The exception would be drivers under 18, who would be banned from using any cell phone, hands-free or not.
She and her co-sponsors have tried to cover a wide variety of distracting devices in their bill, including “a mobile telephone, a text messaging device, a paging device, a personal digital assistant, a laptop computer, electronic equipment that is capable of playing a video game or digital video disk, equipment on which digital photographs are taken or transmitted, or any combination thereof, or equipment that is capable of visually receiving a television broadcast.”
Pantelakos has tried before to pass similar legislation. Lawmakers have defeated limitations on cell phone use seven times since 2000, some of them efforts sponsored by Pantelakos. She has worked with police officials on this bill and hopes her colleagues share her concerns about driving safety enough to pass a bill this time.
“We put a little bit of everything (in this bill) because it’s time to stop texting and to stop talking while driving,” she said. “I know people say we ‘live free or die’ in New Hampshire. But this isn’t what that motto meant.”
(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)