N.H. Senate hears testimony on bill to ban cell phones while driving

Last modified: 4/3/2014 12:11:17 AM
New Hampshire could become the 13th state to make it illegal to use a hand-held cell phone while driving if the Senate passes a bill that’s already made it through the House.

“This is the most-needed piece of highway safety legislation to come before you this year,” Commissioner of Safety Earl Sweeney told members of the Senate Transportation Committee yesterday.

That committee heard testimony from law enforcement officials, state agencies, victims’ families and others on a bill that will strengthen the state’s distracted driving laws by making the use of any hand-held device a violation-level offense. In New Hampshire, about 124 people died in car crashes caused by distracted driving between 2010 and 2013, Sweeney said. Nationally, there were 3,360 deaths from distracted driving in 2011 alone.

Under the bill, no one would be allowed to use any hand-held device, including a cell phone or GPS, while driving, except to call 911 in an emergency. It would prohibit all cell phone use, even hands-free, for drivers under 18. New Hampshire’s current distracted driving law bans texting while driving but is rarely enforced, speakers said yesterday.

If this bill passes, drivers could still talk on their cell phones while driving if they use a hands-free device that uses just one push to start a call. The ban on hand-held devices, including plugging addresses into a GPS, would be in effect even if the driver is stopped at a traffic light. Under the bill, the only way to make nonemergency calls, send text messages or use other hand-held devices would be to pull over on the side of the road.

Gov. Maggie Hassan’s spokesman said she has not fully reviewed the bill but appreciates the Legislature’s focus on the issue.

Twelve other states have hand-held device bans in place, while 43 states ban texting while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, which tracks traffic safety across the country. Thirty-seven states ban all cell phone use for new drivers. Several studies show that distracted driving plays a significant role in car accidents, especially among young drivers. But a representative from the Governors Highway Safety Association said no data is available yet on whether banning cell phone use while driving is actually reducing accidents.

Supporters of the ban yesterday pointed to statistics that show cell phone use, especially texting, plays a major role in car crashes, behind only impaired driving. But detractors said the state’s existing laws are strong enough to combat the problem as long as they’re properly enforced. This law would only encourage people to text in a more discreet way, maybe putting the phone on their lap instead of in front of their face, which would take their eyes even further off the road, some opponents said.

“I believe there is a distracted driver problem, but I think enforcement of the existing law is the answer,” said Rep. Gary Daniels, a Milford Republican.

On average, the police write only 76 tickets a year for distracted driving, Sweeney said. During House hearings on the bill, representatives from the telecommunications and trucking industries as well as members of the state highway and safety agencies expressed support for the bill.

Studies show that drivers who are texting are more likely to cause accidents than those who are talking on cell phones. In fact, drivers are 23 times more likely to crash when texting, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Sending a text message takes an average of 4.6 seconds, which is a lengthy time for a driver to keep his or her eyes off the road, supporters of the bill said. Studies also show most drivers admit to talking on their phones or texting while driving.

“We all drive distracted; some more frequently and some less so,” said Howard Hedegard of the New Hampshire Traffic Safety Institute. “And because driving distracted, like other risky driving behaviors, doesn’t always result in a crash, we deceive ourselves into believing that it is not risky, and we do it over and over again.”

Two families who spoke at the hearing know, however, that it is risky. Donald and Tressa Flanders told the committee about their son, who is suffering from severe brain damage after the family car was hit by a driver who was sending a text. Pam and Bill McKinney also experienced the dangers of texting while driving, when Pam’s father was hit and killed by a texting driver while picking up the mail in December.

“The life you save may be your own or that of one you love,” Bill told the committee as he urged them to pass the bill.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)


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