CONCORD — Lisa Beaudoin of Temple has become a fierce advocate for legislation increasing penalties for those who misuse their cell phones while driving and cause serious bodily injury.
It’s personal for Beaudoin, who is still trying to pick up the pieces with a badly-broken body that needed $750,000 in medical expenses and seven surgeries, all arising from a horrific crash with a distracted driver in December 2018.
“My sons and extended family sat terrorized for two days wondering if I would live or die. Neither doctors nor medication could control the excruciating pain I was feeling for three full days,” Beaudoin recalled.
The driver who caused the accident got to self-select when he reported to Valley Street Jail to serve a 60-day sentence and was fined $1,000.
The judge said he couldn’t order restitution because the driver was underinsured and didn’t have a job at the time of the crash, said Holly Haines, a lawyer whose firm is representing Beaudoin in a civil suit.
“Meanwhile, Ms. Beaudoin served almost six months in her own prison after her body was broken by this distracted driver,” Haines said.
State Sen. Shannon Chandley, told the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday her bill (SB 436) would attach the same seriousness to misusing a hand-held cell phone while driving that policymakers set out to do 30 years ago in jacking up the penalties for driving drunk.
“Texting while while driving has been illegal since Jan. 1, 2010. Yet every one of us probably sees someone texting while driving on the way home from here. For 10 years, a significant portion of our population has been ignoring the law,” Chandley said.
“We need a cultural change.”
The bill would allow a judge to attach a stiffer punishment for a serious motor vehicle crime if misuse of the cellphone was an element of the offense.
For example, the maximum for someone sober who is convicted of vehicular homicide or manslaughter in New Hampshire is seven years in prison; this would allow the judge to impose a sentence of up to 15 years
“We must really work together to put really sharp teeth into the penalties for causing seriously bodily injury and sharpen the public’s awareness of how serious distracted driving has come,” Beaudoin said.
Christopher Casko, an administrator with the Department of Safety, proposed an amendment Chandley supported that would make the potential for stiffer penalties known to the defendant at the time the person was charged with the offense.
Chandley said she’d be open to limiting this stiffer punishment for only the most serious crimes on the road and not for all motor vehicle violations.
It’s against the law to hold and use a cellphone while driving in New Hamphire, 16 other states and the District of Columbia.
Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, noted this bill would not change any driver’s right to use a cellphone as long as it’s not held, such as being connected to GPS or talking on it with the use of a Bluetooth.
Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry and a past chairman of the Senate panel, said the bill is well-intentioned, but implementing it could be difficult.
“You see people who are looking at their phone while driving but the question I have is how is this going to be enforced? Unless they actually see someone on the phone, how are they going to prove someone was on the phone?” Carson said.
“The police officer can’t take the cellphone to see that this accident happened at a certain time to confirm this person was on the phone. Unless a person admits they were on the cellphone, how do you get there?”
Beaudoin is executive director of ABLE-NH, which advocates for disability rights justice and said she had to work from home until she began to relearn to walk last September.
“The non-profit I worked for paid two months of medical leave and allowed me to work from home for nine months,” Beaudoin said. “How does a waitress, or employees of a Walmart, car repair shops or any minimum wage or near-minimum wage hourly worker not go broke or avoid homelessness, if they are put into a recovery process like mine? Distracted drivers inflict harsh financial impacts beyond the physical injuries.”