CONCORD — Victims of distracted drivers told a Senate committee Tuesday that a new law banning the hand-held use of cell phones and other electronic devices is needed, or more families will suffer the loss of loved ones.
Bill McKinney of Mont Vernon said his father-in-law, former Amherst Fire Chief John Bachman, was killed walking to his mailbox Dec. 23 by a driver who may have been texting. On Dec. 24, a mother of three was killed in Brookline by a driver police say was distracted.
"I don't believe either driver woke up that morning thinking, 'I'm going to take a life today,'" McKinney said. "Nothing in this bill will bring back loved ones, but you can prevent other families from losing loved ones."
Under House Bill 1360, hand-held use of cell phones, GPS, I-Pads or other communication devices would be prohibited in a moving vehicle, or at a stop sign or light, or in stopped traffic.
The bill would allow the hands-free use of a cell phone via speaker phone, BlueTooth or on-board car phones, GPS or other electronic devices for drivers older than 18 years old.
Cell phone or other electronic device use by those younger than 18 would be prohibited at any time, other than in an emergency or if a vehicle is stopped, off the road and in a safe place.
Supporters noted that distracted driving is a factor in 27 percent of the fatal accidents in the state over the last three years, resulting in 116 deaths.
Department of Safety officials say only drunk and drugged driving causes more deaths on the state's highways than distracted drivers.
But opponents said the bill overreaches and its prohibitions are unrealistic. And they said current laws against distracted driving are not enforced and should be before any new restrictions are imposed.
"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?"
Rep. Gary Daniels, R-Milford, noted the bill makes an exception for the use of CB radios and like devices; someone could just as easily hold a cell phone with one hand and carry on a conversation while looking at the road, he said.
"I have a real problem with being guilty until proven innocent," Daniels said, "instead of innocent until proven guilty. This is ridiculous."
Cell phone bans while driving have been before the legislature many times; none had been successful until the House passed HB 1360 on a 192-133 vote last month.
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; 41 states prohibit texting while driving.
The prohibitions in the bill against cell phone use do not apply in an emergency.
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.
The prohibition on hand-held use would also apply to police and other emergency responders, but that is a good thing, according to Greenland Police Chief Tara Laurent, who was representing the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police.
"Using a cell phone is dangerous behavior. People are dying and police officers are no better at it," Laurent said. "Yes it will change our job. Yes we will have to be retrained, but it can be done."
The bill also had the backing of the New Hampshire Auto Dealers Association.
Dennis Gaudet, CEO of AutoServ in Tilton, said he wants to see the bill approved for the sake of his three daughters.
"You see people weave in and out of lanes like never before," Gaudet said. "I was a biker, but I bought a mountain bike last year. If you're out on the roads today, it's scary."
The bill was also supported by Verizon, General Motors, other businesses and organizations, and state agencies.
The only opposition to the bill at the Senate hearing came from representatives who had opposed the bill in the House.
The Senate Transportation Committee will meet later to decide what recommendations to make on the bill.