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Garry Rayno's State House Dome: Distracted-driving bill getting favorable looks

State House Bureau

April 12. 2014 10:42PM

If you hold your cellphone to your ear while you drive or program your GPS on the run, begin changing your ways now.

This week, the Senate will act on House Bill 1360, which would ban hand-held use of a cellphone, GPS, iPad or other communication devices while operating a vehicle, sitting at a stop sign or stopped in bumper-to-bumper traffic, unless there was an emergency.

Hands-free use by speaker phone, BlueTooth or on-board car phone would be allowed, as would hands-free use of a GPS or other electronic device.

However, drivers younger than 18 would not be able to use any of the devices in a moving vehicle or while temporarily stopped at a sign or in traffic. The only exception would be to call 911.

Given the Legislature's history with cellphone bans, many expected HB 1360 to go down in flames; instead, the bill passed the House on a 192-133 vote.

After the House vote, the same doubters all said, "Dead on arrival in the Senate."

But the public hearing before the Senate Transportation Committee turned heads as law enforcement; family members of victims of texting drivers; auto dealers and manufacturers; cellphone companies; businesses and advocacy groups; and state agencies turned out to support the bill.

They all said the issue was safety and the risk to others' lives. Department of Safety data show distracted driving was a factor in 27 percent of the 116 fatal accidents in the state over the last three years.

Safety officials said only drunken and drugged driving causes more deaths on the state's highways than distracted drivers.

There was opposition to the bill at the public hearing, from all of the Republican House members who had spoken against the bill when it was before the House. They claimed the bill overreached and would prohibit drivers from performing everyday activities that are not a problem.

And they argued current laws against distracted driving are not enforced and should be before imposing any new restrictions.

"We need to hold people accountable to the laws we have on the books," said Rep. Alfred Baldasaro, R-Londonderry. "What's next: cigarettes, or women brushing their hair in the morning?"

Evidently, the opposition did not persuade the senators on the committee, who voted unanimously, 5-0, to pass the bill, though they did add a provision that would require safety agencies to conduct a public education campaign to alert drivers of the new law before it went into effect, July 1, 2015.

The committee has three Republicans and two Democrats. The House vote was less partisan than many: About 30 Republicans voted for the bill, and about a dozen Democrats voted against it.

If the same breakdown holds in the Senate, and there is no reason to think it will not, come July 1, 2015, we are all going to have to change our ways.

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Domestic Violence: Becky Ranes will testify before the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee Tuesday for a bill that would make domestic violence a crime.

She is the mother of 9-year-old Joshua Savyon, who was killed by his father, Muni Savyon, during a court-ordered supervised visit last August in Manchester. Muni Savyon, who turned the gun on himself after he killed his son, was under a domestic violence protective order because he had threatened to kill both Joshua and Ranes.

Law enforcement says the bill would clarify what is and what is not domestic violence - critical information for prosecutors and judges during arraignments for setting bail or release conditions.

The public hearing on Senate Bill 318 will be at 1 p.m. Tuesday in Rooms 202-204 of the Legislative Office Building.

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Death Penalty: This week, the Senate will decide the fate of the death penalty in New Hampshire.

After first voting, 2-2, to kill House Bill 1170, the Senate Judiciary Committee last week reversed itself and voted, 3-2, to pass it once Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, had the opportunity to vote. Soucy had been unable to attend the first meeting.

Many thought Soucy would be against repeal. The state's only death row inmate, Michael Addison, murdered Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs in 2006 in her Senate district. Instead, she wanted to go on record supporting repeal.

All the senators will be on record Thursday when the bill comes to the floor. Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said he does not believe repeal is a partisan issue and instead will be decided by each senator's personal beliefs.

He said he expects the vote to be either 12-12 or decided one way or the other by a 13-11 vote.

Senators asked Friday about the vote all said they couldn't predict the outcome, as many senators are keeping decisions close to their vests.

Repeal proponents have been working very hard on this, seeing a real opportunity for the first time in ages.

The key is Hassan, who has said she will sign the bill as long as it does not change Addison's death sentence. Former Gov. John Lynch opposed repeal.

Concerns have been expressed by former Attorney General and now U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte and others that repealing the death penalty could commute Addison's sentence or at least lessen the penalty.

But the bill's sponsor, Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, said no change in criminal law can be prospective, meaning whatever sentence you received does not change if the law changes in the future.

Arnie Alpert, of the NH Coalition Against the Death Penalty, said the speed limit on Interstate 93 north of Canterbury is now 70 mph. If someone received a speeding ticket several years ago for going 70 mph in a 65 mph zone, the person could not go back to court to contest the penalty now that the speed limit has changed.

Steve Hawkins, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, met with some senators last week, making the case for repeal as Cushing took him from one Senate office to the next targeting those who may be sitting on the fence.

Hawkins was in town for an event to discuss the push to rid the world of the death penalty.

Other events to push repeal are planned leading up to Thursday's vote.

Law enforcement has been the constant opposition to repeal, with many saying it would disrespect those killed in the line of duty. They are also doing their own lobbying of senators, knowing as supporters do that if the bill passes the Senate, Hassan will sign it.

How the Senate will vote is impossible to predict at this point.

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Gas Tax: The 4.2 cent increase in the state's gas and diesel tax is also expected to fly through the House, particularly after representatives have heard from their constituents about the conditions of the roads this spring. Yes, it finally is spring.?

The Joint Transportation and Ways and Means committees will meet Tuesday at 1 p.m. in Rooms 210-211 of the Legislative Office Building to decide what recommendation to make on SB 367.

Hassan has said she will sign the bill if both the Senate and the House agree, which is expected.

The increase will raise the gas tax to 22.2 cents, still the lowest in New England, and the first increase since 1991.

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