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January 14. 2014 5:27PM

State Police backs bill to crack down on distracted driving

CONCORD -- The New Hampshire State Police Tuesday strongly backed legislation that would crack down on distracted driving in virtually all forms in the Granite State, saying it is time for a major source of roadway crashes to be seriously addressed.

"More and more, both nationally and here in New Hampshire, serious and fatal traffic crashes are being caused by distracted driving, and they are very often related to cell phone use and text messaging," Lt. Matthew Shapiro, who oversees highway safety coordination for the State Police, told the House Transportation Committee.

The panel held a public hearing on three bills that would address driving while using hand-held devices, such as cell phones. It will continue to work on the bills in the coming weeks as a committee of the whole, rather than through a subcommittee.

The committee will most likely combine key features of each bill into a single piece of legislation for full House consideration later in the session.

By far the most comprehensive measure, House Bill 1360, would make it a violation for any driver to use "any hand-held mobile electronic device" while driving or even while stopped in traffic or at a traffic light.

Outlawed would be reading, composing or writing email or text messages, talking on a hand-held cell phone, and using either hand to access the Internet or to put data into a GPS system.

Hands-free cell phone conversations, via Blue Tooth technology, for instance, would not be banned for anyone 18 years of age or older. But new drivers, age 16 and 17, would be banned even from using hands-free technology.

An exception to the hand-held ban would allow a driver to use a cell phone or mobile radio to report an emergency to the 911 system or to a law enforcement agency, fire department or emergency medical provider. There is no ban on anyone using a cell phone while pulled off on the side of a road.

First responders are not exempt from the cell phone provisions of the bill, which Shapiro said the State Police supports because police and other safety officials "need to lead the way, by example, with regard to such types of dangerous driving behaviors."

However, drivers "public safety vehicles," taxi cabs, busses, commercial trucks or delivery vehicles and public works vehicles would be allowed to send and receive "brief voice messages over a mobile two-way radio" while "in the course of business or in the line of duty."

Chief sponsor Rep. Laura Pantelakos, D-Portsmouth, said House Bill 1360 would go further, banning from a motor vehicle "anything which is interfering with or impeding the proper operation of the vehicle."

"This bill includes putting makeup on while driving, using a computer, reading the newspaper, any number of things that you should be not doing behind the wheel," including allowing a pet to ride on the lap of a driver, she said.

Interpretation of that provision would be left to the discretion of the police, she said.

"A car is a lethal weapon and we've heard nothing but stories of people being killed or badly injured while talking on the phone when driving," Pantelakos said.

Shapiro said he doubted a police officer would likely not pull over a driver for eating a hamburger behind the wheel, for instance, unless the driver was driving recklessly.

A spokesman for the state Health and Human Services Department, which also backed the bill, said that in a recent survey, almost half of the state's driving age high school students admitted to texting while driving and almost 70 percent said they either text, email or talk on cell phones while driving.

Also heard Tuesday were House bill 1117, which would ban cell phone use while driving while the vehicle is in motion, and House Bill 1118, which would limit the cell phone restriction to bus drivers (including school buses) limousines, taxis or "drivers of any vehicle carrying passengers for hire."

Shapiro said the department supports all three bills, but favors the broad Pantelakos bill.

He said the Department of Safety estimates that 28 percent of the fatal crashes in the state in the last six years were caused by distracted driving, second only to driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

He said the state's current law on the matter is outdated, too narrow and almost impossible to enforce.

It prohibits operating a moving motor vehicle while using "two hands to type on or operate an electronic or telecommunication device," such as email or texting.

Today, he said, devices are made for one-handed operation, which, he said, is just as distracting, and there is no law against tapping a cell phone to make a telephone call or talking on a phone.

As a result, said Shapiro, law enforcement is unlikely to stop anyone for tapping a cell phone "because we have to assume that the person might be making a phone call" and not texting.

He said that in 2012, only 16 of nearly 100,000 traffic tickets written by the State Police were for texting while driving.

No one spoke against any of the three bills.

American Automobile Association (AAA) spokesman Patrick Moody said his group supports a "multi-pronged approach" for dealing with the issue, including enhanced penalties for distracted drivers who cause accidents, and public education.

He said 12 distracted driving-related bill have been introduced in the northern New England states this year.

If House Bill 1360 becomes law, the fines would be $100 for a first offense, $250 for a second offense and $500 for any subsequent offense with a 24-hour period.

Verizon Communications took no position on the bill, but offered a proposed amendment with a detailed definition of a "hands-free electronic device" and would allow someone to use "either hand" to "activate, deactivate or initiate a function of the telephone."

Verizon lobbyist Kathy Veracco said 12 other states ban the use of cell phones while driving and 37 ban such use for "novice drivers" and 18 ban them for school bus drivers.

The bill also received the backing of the New Hampshire Motor Transport Association.

Shapiro also said there is a "mis-perception" that distracted driving is a problem only with young people, "But this is widespread in every demographic."

He also said statistics are difficult to nail down, "No one admits (who was just in an accident) admits that they were texting while driving. It's always that 'I was distracted. I looked down.'"

Howard Hedegard of the non-profit New Hampshire Safety Institute said that 14 of fatal crashes in 2011 involved "distraction," and an additional 10 percent were caused by "center line encroachment," with the exact cause unknown.

"When two of 10 fatal crashes are because we're distracted, it's time for us to do something," Hedegard said.


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