CONCORD— Holding a cell phone or any other electronic device while driving would be prohibited under a bill passed by the House Wednesday on a 192-133 vote.
Under House Bill 1360, hands-free use of a cell phone such as using speaker phone, BlueTooth or on-board car phones, GPS or other electronic devices would be allowed for drivers older than 18 years old.
Bill supporters said the bill is about safety, noting that distracted driving is a factor in 28 percent of fatal accidents in the state over the last six years.
"You only need to drive down the streets here in New Hampshire to witness any number of drivers distracted by cell phone use," said Rep. George Sykes, D-Lebanon. "Isn't it time to address this dangerous problem of distracted driving, and isn't it time to prevent all these unnecessary crashes and loss of life?"
But opponents said the bill overreaches and its prohibitions are unrealistic and would prohibit things people do every day that are not a problem.
And they said current laws against distracted driving are not enforced and should be before imposing any new restrictions.
Rep. Tim O'Flaherty, D-Manchester, called the bill overreaching and questionable, saying it is not consistent about smart phone and other device use and discriminates against the poor who cannot afford a vehicle with integrated technology.
And he said the bill bans the use of all devices for drivers under 18 years old. "That's about as wise and effective as requiring teenagers to abstain from sex," O'Flaherty said.
But former driver education teacher Rep. Karel Crawford, R-Moultonborough, defended the restrictions on young drivers saying lawmakers have already imposed a number of restrictions on teen drivers.
"The less distractions teens have while they are driving," Crawford said, "the safer the general public will be."
Cell phone bans while driving have been before the House many times, but none had been successful until Wednesday.
The prohibitions in the bill against cell phone use do not apply in an emergency. An exemption is also made for two-way radio communications like that used by truck drivers.
Drivers would be able to pull over and stop to use a cell phone or program a GPS under the bill, but not at a temporary stop such as a red light.
State law currently bans texting while driving, but does not prohibit reading a text message, dialing a cell phone, programming a GPS or surfing the internet on a smart phone.
Using a cell phone while driving is banned in 12 states and 41 states prohibit texting while driving.
The bill creates the crime of impeded driving, which would be a primary offense that allows a police officer to stop a vehicle for violating the law. Under a secondary offense, police may not stop a vehicle for the violation, but if the driver is stopped for another violation, a charge can be brought.
Several representatives said texting while driving is a problem, but questioned the ban saying it would create a number of unintended scenarios no one would support.
"This is a wicked bad bill," said Rep. Jim Berlanger, R-Hollis. "There are only so many ways you can put a dress on a pig and say it isn't a pig."
O'Flaherty argued discretion is needed, not more laws. An individual driver should be allowed to use his or her best judgment and exercise personal responsibility, he said.
But Steven Smith, R-Charlestown, said the bill is actually pro-liberty.
"I don't think anybody has a right to use a cell phone, but I certainly have a right to life and not get crashed into by someone using a cell phone," Smith said. "When it's time to drive, just drive. It's that simple."
The bill was supported by the New Hampshire Auto Dealers Association, Verizon, General Motors and other businesses and organizations.
"We know that cell phones and mobile devices are a major distraction for all drivers, threatening the safety of roadways for all of us," says Pete McNamara, President of the New Hampshire Auto Dealers Association. "We need to send a clear message to all drivers: put down the cell phone and get your eyes back on the road."
The bill now goes to the Senate.