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Hands-free law: 103 crashes cited

New Hampshire Sunday News

October 02. 2016 9:38PM
This sign on Route 101 in Auburn last year warned motorists about the state's then-new hands-free law. (UNION LEADER FILE)

“Live to do great things. Don’t text and drive.”

That’s the electronic message that will greet visitors and residents driving next Monday on New Hampshire’s highways on Columbus Day.

And this Friday and Saturday, electronic message boards will display the message: “Drivers be aware. Hands-free law enforced.”

It’s been 15 months since New Hampshire’s hands-free law took effect, and state safety officials say the number of drivers they see using electronic devices is down dramatically.

“There is absolutely no doubt it is dramatically better than it was,” said Capt. Matthew Shapiro, commander of highway safety for New Hampshire State Police.

Shapiro said that law, which took effect July 1, 2015, after a year-long public awareness campaign, is making a difference. The new law isn’t universally liked — or obeyed. Some drivers have gotten more surreptitious, hiding their cellphones in their laps. But Shapiro rejects the suggestion that the law’s unintended consequence is to make some drivers even more dangerous.

He said he’s seen a shift in how the public thinks about the issue. “Now you have people who get upset when they see other people doing it,” he said. “They understand it’s dangerous.”

And that’s the beginning of changing the driving culture, he said, “where people start to police themselves and acknowledge this isn’t OK for anybody to do.”

Not all get the message

Manual use of electronic devices was determined to be the cause in 103 crashes investigated by state police from the time the hands-free law took effect on July 1, 2015, through Sept. 27 of this year, according to data compiled by the Department of Safety for the Sunday News.

Four of those crashes resulted in fatalities.

To put that number in perspective, state police investigated a total of 6,751 crashes during that time; that means about 1.5 percent of those crashes was attributed to illegal use of electronic devices.

According to the Department of Safety data, the crashes that state police investigated and found to be caused by use of electronic devices happened during both daylight and darkness; in nearly all, road conditions were dry.

Five happened in work zones.

The distracted drivers’ vehicles struck other vehicles, guardrails, trees, mailboxes, utility poles and, in two instances, pedestrians.

In some cases, the drivers lost control on a curve or veered into another lane. But in most cases, the vehicles’ action prior to the crash was listed as “movements essentially straight ahead.”

Shapiro said electronic device use as a cause of crashes is surely under-reported; not many drivers will admit to the behavior. And it’s only the serious or fatal crashes that state police investigate, looking for evidence of distracted driving.

“When you see someone who has gone left of center for no apparent reason into someone else’s lane, or departed the roadway for no apparent reasons into the median, or hit a tree on a corner for no apparent reason, there are things that are more likely than not to be the leading causes of those types of crashes,” he said. And manual use of electronic devices is one of them.

Shapiro said fatal and serious-injury crashes in New Hampshire are still overwhelmingly caused by three things: impairment, distracted driving and speeding.

Seatbelt use is also a factor, although Shapiro noted that voluntary seatbelt use in New Hampshire, the only state without an adult seatbelt mandate, is about 70 percent. That’s another example of changing driver behavior, he said; 30 years ago, the seatbelt rate was 13 percent.

It’s not easy to change the kind of habit that cellphones have become, Shapiro acknowledged. During his work on the bill that became the hands-free law, he heard admissions from folks of near-misses caused by looking at their cellphones or other devices: drifting into another lane, almost hitting a vehicle that slowed in front of them, or missing an exit.

“Generally speaking, their common experience is they’ve gotten away with it over and over again,” he said. “Until one day you don’t. And that’s the problem.”

But he’s confident it will get better. He expects emerging technology will help. “The next time you buy a new car, perhaps it will be easier to have integrated Bluetooth in the car you get,” he said.

“You will start to have generations of drivers come through driver’s ed that will have learned this from the beginning. So over time, it will continue to improve.”

Shapiro said troopers will be out in force during this holiday weekend to enforce traffic laws, including the ban on using electronic devices unless it’s hands-free.

Crime, law and justice Accidents Technology New Hampshire

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