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NH drivers, put that phone down...

New Hampshire Union Leader

January 05. 2014 8:03PM

The percentage of fatal crashes blamed on driver inattention or distraction in New Hampshire doubled in 2013 over the previous year, according to state figures.

Cellphone use specifically was considered a “contributing factor” in two fatal motor-vehicle crashes in 2013, according to the state Department of Safety.

New Hampshire roadways had 122 fatal crashes in 2013, the highest since tying 2007’s number. A total of 133 people died in those crashes — the highest since 166 were killed in 2005. (The 2013 figures won’t be finalized until the end of January.)

The fatality figures come as two legislators have submitted bills pushing to ban drivers from using hand-held cellphones while driving.

Rep. Laura Pantelakos, D-Portsmouth, said her bill goes beyond cellphones to include prohibiting drivers from using other electronics, including laptops and GPS navigational systems.

“I’ve raised seven kids, and I think I’m quite the multi-tasker, but I can’t drive and answer the phone at the same time,” said Pantelakos, who has proposed four or five cellphone-related bills over the past decade or so.

Neither bill has a hearing date yet before the House Transportation Committee. The Legislature has turned down repeated attempts to curb cellphone use while driving. New Hampshire currently prohibits reading and sending text messages while driving.

“I just think the police need to hold people accountable for the laws in place and fine them and get the message out: New Hampshire doesn’t mess around,” said Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry. “I’ve seen people in the morning putting on makeup, reading newspapers, smoking, you name it.”

Both fatal crashes in which the Department of Safety says cellphone use was a contributing factor occurred just before Christmas.

Authorities said Travis Hobbs, 20, of Mont Vernon was checking his email on his cellphone when he allegedly struck and killed former Amherst Fire Chief John Bachman on Dec. 23. Hobbs is charged with negligent homicide.

The other crash involved three vehicles on Christmas Eve in Brookline. Katie Hamilton, a Brookline mother of three, was killed. Hamilton’s father, Steven Whitcomb, is a volunteer firefighter and was among the firefighters who arrived at the scene.

Of the 122 fatal crashes in 2013, authorities have made a final determination in 106. Driver impairment was blamed for 49 crashes, according to Department of Safety data. Driver distraction/inattention was involved in 14 fatal crashes. That matched the number of accidents attributed to exceeding the posted speed limit or going too fast for road conditions.

In 2012, six of 99 fatal crashes were blamed on driver distraction/inattention.

The 14 fatal crashes involving driver inattention/distraction in 2013 represent the highest number dating back to at least 2009.

Driver “inattention” involves the driver doing something, such as turning on a radio or dialing a phone. “Distraction” is defined as the action of someone or something that affects the driver, such as a child misbehaving in the back seat.

A recently released driving study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute showed that reaching for a phone, dialing or texting on a hand-held cellphone increased the risk of getting into a crash by three times. But there was no direct increased crash risk from specifically talking on the phone.

Rep. Sylvia Gale, a Nashua Democrat, said much of society has come to recognize the dangers of public smoking and drinking and driving — and perhaps the same will happen with cellphone use.

“If we look at it from a public health perspective, I think that might be the right tack,” Gale said. “We need to be real clear, when you’re out on the road, you need to focus eyes and ears, all attention on what’s in front of you.”

Gale said her bill was prompted by a constituent who told her he had been run off the road by a driver talking on his cellphone.

House Bill 1117, sponsored by Gale, prohibits cellphone use while driving a vehicle, except for hands-free devices or emergency personnel performing their duties. Violators are subject to a $100 fine.

Pantelakos’ legislation, House Bill 1360, would prohibit a driver from using “any hand-held or other portable electronic equipment capable of providing data communication between two or more persons, including, without limitation, 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.”

It also would prohibit a person younger than 18 from using a cellphone, whether hands-free or not, while driving a vehicle or temporarily stopped in traffic.

Any violator is subject to a $100 fine plus a penalty assessment on his license for a first offense, $250 plus penalty assessment for a second offense and $500 plus penalty assessment for any subsequent offense within a 24-month period. Anyone under 18 also would be subject to license suspension or revocation under current law. Either law, if passed, would take effect Jan. 1, 2015.

Last month, a Hillsborough County grand jury indicted former Manchester police Sgt. Stephen Coco with two felonies for an alleged hit-and-run accident that injured two teenagers in Bedford last spring. Coco’s attorney, Mark Howard, said Coco was reaching for his cellphone when he traveled up on a snowbank and never realized he hit someone.

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