CONCORD – A bill banning the hand-held use of cellphones or other electronic devices while driving was approved by the Senate Thursday.
Too many drivers are surfing the Internet, reading texts and playing video games while driving, supporters said, and that is making the roads more and more dangerous.
But opponents said the bill moves the state closer and closer to "a Nanny State," and government should not be interfering in people's lives.
House Bill 1360 would ban the hand-held use of a cellphone, GPS, I-Pad or other communication device while operating a vehicle, sitting at a stop sign or stopped in bumper-to-bumper traffic, unless there is an emergency.
Hands-free use by speaker phone, BlueTooth or on-board car phone would be allowed as would hands-free use of a GPS or other electronic device and the use of two-way radios.
However, Drivers younger than 18 years old would be banned from using any of the devices in any circumstance, except for a 911 call.
Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, which voted 5-0 to approve the bill, said the bill would give law enforcement the tools they need to make the roads safer.
"This is not an infringement on the rights of citizens," Rausch said, "but a reasonable limit on the use of the technology we have today to keep us safer."
Sen. Andy Sanborn, R-Bedford, did not share Rausch's view, saying New Hampshire is the Live Free or Die state.
What will lawmakers ban next, he asked, Coca Cola and MacDonald's?
"This is about what this legislative body tells people they can or cannot do," Sanborn said. "Clearly this shows we are walking toward a Nanny State."
Sanborn noted auto dealers would love this bill because everyone would have to go out and buy a new car with on-board phone or GPS.
"Not everyone has a phone with the technology to do this," Sanborn said, noting some people could not afford the equipment needed to meet the bill's requirements.
But Rausch noted a BlueTooth device to allow hands-free use of a cellphone costs less than $40. "You don't need a new car," he said.
Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, said he travels Interstate 93 frequently and sees people driving erratically and accidents that occur, some resulting in deaths.
"The data is quite clear," he said. "This is worth doing because it saves lives."
At a public hearing earlier this month, law enforcement, family members of victims of texting drivers, auto dealers and manufacturers, cellphone companies, businesses and advocacy groups, and state agencies turned out to support the bill.
They all said the issue is safety and the risk to others' lives. Department of Safety data shows distracted driving is a factor in 27 percent of the fatal accidents in the state over the last three years, resulting in 116 deaths.
Safety officials said only drunk and drugged driving causes more deaths on the state's highways than distracted drivers.
Under the Senate version of the bill, the law would not go into effect until July 1, 2015. The Senate also added a provision requiring safety agencies to conduct a public education campaign to alert drivers of the new law before it goes into effect.
The change requires the bill to go back to the House, which will have to decide if the change is agreeable.
In the House, the previous version of the bill passed on a 192-133 vote. The House has previously killed a number of attempts to ban cellphones while driving.
Gov. Maggie Hassan has not said if she would sign the bill, but she has expressed concerns about distracted driving through her communications director.
"The governor believes we must continue to find ways to improve the safety of our roads by reducing distracted driving," said Marc Goldberg. "She appreciates the Legislature's focus on the issue and will closely review any measure as it reaches her desk."
If the bill becomes law, New Hampshire will join 12 other states in banning cellphone use while driving. New Hampshire and 40 other states already prohibit texting while driving.