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May 10. 2014 10:12PM

Few gripes over limits on driver cellphone use

Ron Bingham hopes the anticipated ban on using hand-held electronic devices while driving will be a boon to his business. He sells bicycles.

Bingham, vice president of Goodale's Bike Shop in Concord, Nashua and Hooksett, said it's difficult to argue with customers who tell him they won't ride on New Hampshire's roads. "They have a fear of riding outside because of distracted drivers and too many people texting or using their handheld electronic devices," he said.

Gov. Maggie Hassan is expected to sign into law House Bill 1360, which would ban use of electronic devices while driving or even stopped in traffic; hands-free use would be allowed.

The bill calls for state safety agencies to conduct an education campaign to make drivers aware of the changes. The ban would take effect July 1, 2015.

The New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police supported the bill, and a state police official says it wouldn't be difficult to enforce.

All of this is welcome news to Bingham, who testified in support of the bill.

He said he's seen a drop in business that coincides with a rise in the number of electronic devices people use in their vehicles. "Over the last year or two, I have heard from our customers that maybe they're spinning indoors at the YMCA or a fitness club, and they're buying spin shoes from us and getting the cleats installed."

But they're not buying as many bikes, he said. And that's especially true for parents.

"Over the last five years, we are selling fewer youth bikes," he said, "and I have heard the comments from customers that they really don't feel that the roads are safe to take kids out on for bike rides."

William Hinkle, spokesman for Gov. Maggie Hassan, said she "will likely sign the bill."

"The governor believes that we must continue to find ways to improve the safety of our roads by reducing distracted driving," Hinkle said. "She appreciates the Legislature's focus on the issue and will closely review the bill as it reaches her desk."

Lt. Matthew Shapiro, commander of special services/highway safety for New Hampshire State Police, said enforcing the new law will not be problematic. "I think that people will understand that this is a very dangerous driving behavior, and I hope that they engage in voluntary compliance and just do it in a safer way," he said.

Shapiro stressed the measure does not prohibit "connectivity;" people will still be able to use their cellphones or GPS, but they'll have to do it hands-free.

"What it does restrict is the most dangerous driving behavior, which is having your head down and engaging in hand-held manipulation of electronic devices using your fine-motor skills."

Under the bill, it would be legal to pull over to the side of the road to use an electronic device. If the call is being made to report an emergency, the driver would not need to pull over.

Drivers would be allowed to use one hand to transmit or receive messages on a two-way radio and to use hands-free electronic devices. The measure also does not preclude using one hand "to activate, deactivate or initiate a function of the telephone."

However, it reads: "An operator of a motor vehicle who holds a cellular telephone or other electronic device capable of voice communication in the immediate proximity of his or her ear while such vehicle is in motion is presumed to be engaging in a call."

A ticket for violating the law would cost $100 for a first offense, $250 for a second and $500 for any subsequent offense within 24 months. Shapiro said that's in line with fines for other moving violations.

Shapiro said the state's ban on texting, passed in 2009, has been "very, very difficult to enforce." That's because it only banned texting, not all the other things people do on their electronic devices, such as scrolling through contacts, typing an address into a GPS or accessing the Internet, he said.

Of about 100,000 traffic tickets written by the Department of Safety in 2012, Shapiro said, only 76 were for texting while driving. He said anyone who's driven on New Hampshire roads knows the behavior is far more common than that.

A recent study by Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) found that adult drivers were three times more likely to crash if they were dialing a hand-held cellphone; for novice drivers, it was eight times more likely, Shapiro said.

Even hands-free cellphone use involved visual-manual tasks associated with a greater crash risk, the VTTI study found.

Shapiro uses a Bluetooth earbud for his own personal phone, and a state police-issued speaker box for his cruiser. He said law enforcement officers will not be exempt from the new law.

"We are at as high a risk as the general public to get involved in a distracted-driving crash because of all the distraction that is going on when you're en route to a call," he said.

"It's incumbent upon us to lead the way in doing the right thing."

Jessica Higgins of Manchester said the law will have little effect on her because she was inspired to not use her phone in the car when a friend was involved in a car crash while using a phone.

"I honestly never use my phone while driving," she said.

Sarah Venus of Merrimack said she may have to invest in hands-free technology, since she frequently uses the phone while in the car.

"I'm going to have to get one of those Bluetooth things or upgrade my car," she said. (See related story.)

Widespread concern

Twelve other states ban use of hand-held electronic devices while driving; 42 ban texting while driving.

Shapiro said every state is dealing with the same problem of distracted driving. "Everyone is trying to come to grips with doing it the safest way possible without restricting connectivity."

New Hampshire already has a Driving Towards Zero public awareness campaign, which Shapiro said will provide a foundation for a "targeted education program" about the new law. That will include public service announcements, message boards and handouts to remind drivers about the coming changes.

Driver education classes will also include information about the even tougher restrictions on drivers younger than 18, who are banned from using any kind of electronic device while driving, even those that are hands-free, unless it's an emergency.

"We'll do the best we can to make sure that everybody's aware," Shapiro said.

For Rep. Laura Pantelakos, D-Portsmouth, it's been a decade-long fight to ban cellphones while driving. She said she's "elated" that her bill is poised to become law.

"We need to change the culture because this is a safety issue," she said.

The 78-year-old great-grandmother said she pulls over when she needs to make or take a call. "Because I cannot multi-task like that," she said.

Pantelakos said she thinks what made the difference this year was the support of law enforcement for her bill. And she scoffs at those who say it cannot be enforced.Bingham said he's "ecstatic" that the bill passed. "And I know that the core base of regular road users, for cycling as well as pedestrians and dog walkers, are all going to be safer out there.

"I realize it's going to take time ... to re-educate the population," he said. "But it's like the drunken-driving laws; what was acceptable - to drink and drive - in the '70s and '80s is not acceptable in society today."


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