CONCORD - A new effort to limit the use of cellular telephones by motorists will be launched in the state Legislature next year, reflecting public concern over the hazards posed by distracted drivers.
Two lawmakers have asked the state Legislative Services Bureau to draft legislation to toughen state laws on cellphone use and distracted driving by people behind the wheel.
New Hampshire prohibits reading and sending text messages while driving and has a prohibition on two-handed use of any electronic device.
The state has no law making it illegal for a driver to use a hand-held cellular telephone, but it does regulate cellphone use under a wide-ranging distracted driving law.
For more than 30 years, state law has prohibited drivers from using radiotelephones, the technological great-grandfather of today's cellphones. That ban was enacted as part of legislation limiting drivers' use of citizen band radios during the CB craze of the early 1980s.
Rep. Sylvia Gale, D-Nashua, has submitted a request that legislation be drafted specifically to prohibit the use of cellphones by drivers.
"I'm going to take another stab at it, and I have a highway safety expert sending me some model legislation," Gale said. "I think we all experience it every day: People not paying attention while on their cellphones."
Gale said she is undecided whether the ban should make cellphone use while driving a violation or misdemeanor.
Rep. Laura Pantelakos, D-Portsmouth, chairman of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, also has filed a legislative service request seeking to toughen state laws that prohibit distracted driving.
She would back a ban on cellphone use by drivers and would extend the state's ban on sending text messages to holding a cellphone while driving.
"I'd like to stop (drivers) from talking on the cellphone and missing my bumper by a half inch," Pantelakos said. "I'd like to not see people riding with kids in their car in the back seat and going by me and reading a newspaper or punching their computers."
At least one major cellular telephone industry trade group has no plans to oppose further restrictions on cellphone use by motorists.
John Walls, vice president of CTIA, the former Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, said the group does not oppose state action to restrict cellphone use by drivers. Walls said CTIA - which represents cellular service providers and the makers of cellphones and cellphone software - reached its position more than a decade ago, before cellular telephone use exploded.
According to Distraction.gov - a U.S. Government website dedicated to educating the public about distracted driving, particularly cellphone use and texting while driving - at any given moment in America, 660,000 drivers are using a cellphone or an electronic device while navigating roads filled with cars and trucks, bicycle riders, motorcyclists and pedestrians. That statistic has held steady since 2010.
Eleven states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands prohibit all drivers from using handheld cellphones while driving. On Oct. 1, Florida will become the 41st state to ban the practice of texting while driving. The District of Columbia and Guam also ban texting while driving.
But data suggests these legislative actions have failed to curb the rise in distracted driving accidents. According to a 2012 study by the Governors Highway Safety Bureau, a nonprofit association representing the highway safety offices of each state, 15 states say their distracted driving crashes have increased, 11 say they have decreased, and 16 report the same rate of crashes since their respective laws took effect.
"Restrictions on cellphone use do not appear to be making the crashes go down faster in states that have the laws," said Russ Rader, senior vice president at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a driving research organization,
In 2000, a study done for the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis concluded, "While there is evidence that using a cellular phone while driving poses risks to both the driver and others, it may be premature to enact substantial restrictions."
The Harvard researchers cited economic analyses that claimed banning cellphone use by drivers didn't make economic sense when weighed against "the benefits that such communications provide."
But people who have been involved in accidents or near-accidents caused by cellphone-using motorists say it is an issue of safety, not economics.
Robert Vanderbeck of Bedford, who asked Gale to file her bill banning cellphone use by motorists, said his daily trip along Route 3 through the Merrimack Valley convinced him there is more than economics to the risk and benefit of a ban on cell use by drivers.
"I drive from Nashua to Bedford and see people weaving a little bit, going slow in the passing lane and sometimes changing lanes when I'm there," Vanderbeck said. "Somebody changed lanes with me while babbling on the phone and forced me into the breakdown lane."
Evidence of the dangers of distracted driving goes beyond the anecdotal.
In 2011, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association, 3,331 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver, compared to 3,267 in 2010. An additional 387,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver, compared to 416,000 injured in 2010, according to the NHTSA.
Handheld vs. hands-free
Some would limit cellphone bans to hand-held devices and allow Bluetooth and other hands-free cellular use.
A 2008 study done at the State University of New York at Cortland found little difference in reaction time between a driver using a handheld phone in a traffic emergency and one using a hands-free device under the same circumstances.
That study, led by Joy Hendrick a professor in kinesology at SUNY, measured how long it took to recognize and react to the need hit the brakes.
"When they were using any type of cellphone device, they were more than 20 percent slower than when they were not talking on the phone; there was no difference between hands-free and handheld," Hendrick said.
Hendrick's area of academic interest is in exercise science, which includes the study of movement and the way the brain decides how and when to move.
"It's actually the thought process of the conversation that is the slowing factor," Hendrick said.
"Usually it is a more thought-provoking conversation with someone on a cellphone than with somebody in the car, and somebody in the car is aware of what is happening, and they will stop the conversation if they see something happening," she said.
Gale said that while her bill likely will include a ban on handheld cellphone use by motorists, she's not inclined to ask for a ban on the use of hands-free devices, partly because it's hard to tell if someone is talking on the phone when a device is not in their hand.
"I think there are some traffic-safety experts that would contend that anything that takes your 100 percent attention off the road, to speak into a speaker whether its in your hand or not, would be equally dangerous," she said. But, she added, "I'm just going to go for the obvious ones, the hand-held devices that can be obvious to the officer in passing"
At least seven states have banned use of handheld phones by drivers, and at least 29 others prohibit their use by young or inexperienced drivers. There's good reason for that, SUNY-Corltand's Hendrick said.
"In terms of attention capacity, for younger drivers the driving function takes up more of their available attention than more experienced drivers," she said.
And that makes texting while driving, particularly by young people, especially dangerous, Hendrick said.
"Texting is a motor type of task, and it has more attentional demands regardless of how expert they are at multi-tasking," she said.
The ubiquitous nature of text messaging has prompted manufacturers and governments alike to try to make peace with technology.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week announced plans to set up a series of comfort stations for texting - areas where a motorist can pull off the highway and read and send text messages.
Some cellphone manufacturers, such as Apple Inc., have configured devices to eliminate the need to read and type in sharing short messages. Models of Apple's iPhone allow a user with a Bluetooth connection to verbally answer text messages that are read to them by Siri, the iPhone's automated nagging device.
Still, legislators such as Gale are firm in the belief that further restrictions are necessary. She says she's prepared for the arguments that restricting cellphone use in cars is restricting personal freedom.
"I think, for everyone's safety on the roads, that anything and everything that I can do to assure that my mother, sister, brother, daughter, son, neighbor, friend or fellow legislator are assured a higher measure of safety on the highways is my responsibility and my obligation," she said.