Strict New Hampshire Cell Phone Laws Go Into Effect July 2015, Is Massachusetts Next?

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Cell phone, texting news: Gov. Maggie Hassan has signed into law a statewide ban on handheld cell phone use by drivers.
The measure cleared the legislature in May and takes effect July 1, 2015. Fines range from $100 (first offense) to $500. The education/marketing push is under way, with the slogan “Hands Free, a Better Way to Be.” The governor said the new law tackles “an increasing danger that we must address.” A 2015 attempt to repeal the new law was defeated in mid-March.

The measure, from State Rep. Laura Pantelakos, also bars all cell phone use by teen drivers. During an April 1, 2014, hearing in the Senate, the state safety commissioner called it “the most-needed piece of highway safety legislation to come before you this year.” An opponent called the law a product of “a nanny state.”

The libertarian state Rep. Dan McGuire has filed legislation for 2015 that would repeal the new cell phone law and replace it with a ban that applies only to drivers under age 18.

New Hampshire’s ban on text messaging went into effect Jan. 1, 2010.

Current prohibitions:

Text messaging outlawed for all drivers. Fine $100.
Viewing of TV broadcast signals prohibited while driving.
Handheld cell phone use banned for all drivers as of July 1, 2015. Fine up to $500.
All cell phone use banned for drivers under age 18 as of July 1, 2015. “Or other mobile electronic device.” Fine up to $500.
Read the laws: Cell phones & driving | Texting & driving | TV viewing

Distracted driving legislation (2015):
HB 426: Would repeal state’s new handheld cell phone ban and replace it with ban on all cell phone use by drivers under age 18. Transportation Committee marked as “inexpedient to legislate” in a 13-3 vote of March 5. Tabled March 11. (McGuire)

HB 241: Would bar drivers from holding animals in their laps. Tabled Feb. 18. (Richardson)

2014 distracted driving legislation:
HB 1360: Would outlaw use of hand-held mobile electronic devices while driving in New Hampshire. Includes section that would prohibit “anything which is interfering with or impeding the proper operation of the vehicle” (deleted by amendment). Would ban use of all mobile electronic devices by drivers under age 18. Fines: $100 (first offense) then $250 and then $500. Amended and approved by the House Transportation Committee in a 13-3 vote of Feb. 17. Approved by the House in a 192-133 vote of March 5. Amended and approved by the Senate Transportation Committee on April 10. (Amendment sets July 1, 2015, effective date.) Approved by the full Senate on April 17. The House concurred May 7. Signed by the governor July 25 and takes effect July 1, 2015. (Pantelakos)

House Bill 1117: Would ban use of handheld cell phones by drivers. Specifies holding cell phone near the ear is a violation. Fine: $100. Marked “inexpedient to legislate” by House Transportation Committee on Feb. 14. Dead. (Gale, Schmidt)

HB 1118: Would bar drivers of passenger vehicles and school buses (with children aboard) from using handheld communications devices. Fine: $100. Marked “inexpedient to legislate” by House Transportation Committee on Feb. 14. Dead. (Gale, Schmidt)

Distracted driving notes (2013-14):
Gov. Maggie Hassan’s signing message for the hands-free act: “Distracted driving was one of the leading causes of traffic fatalities in New Hampshire and across the nation in 2013, and it is an increasing danger that we must address in order to keep our roads safe. By reducing distracted driving, this bipartisan legislation will help save lives. I thank Rep. (Laura) Pantelakos and legislators from both parties for working to improve the safety of our roads and our people.”

The original House bill envisioned a Jan. 1 start date, but the Senate wanted the delay until summer 2015. A Senate panel also added a requirement for public education. The House went along with the changes without debate.

Rep. Pantelakos, D-Portsmouth, made several attempts to get a cell phone ban through the General Court. “We put a little bit of everything (in the bill) because it’s time to stop texting and to stop talking while driving,” she told the Concord Monitor in late December.

State Sen. Andy Sanborn argued against the cell phone driving ban, saying most people couldn’t afford a new car or even a new phone to meet the hands-free requirement. He was quickly informed that hands-free attachments cost less than a half tank of gas. “This shows we are walking toward a nanny state,” he said.

The Senate Transportation Committee heard testimony on HB 1360 on April 1. Two families told the panel of their tragedies caused by texting drivers. “We deceive ourselves into believing that it is not risky, and we do it over and over again,” said a representative of the the New Hampshire Traffic Safety Institute.

House Minority Leader Gene Chandler wasn’t happy to see the cell phone bill clear the House on March 5: “The vast majority of drivers have been operating their vehicles safely for years, even before hands-free technology hit the market. We should be enforcing distracted driving laws as they stand, rather than ending the use of cell phones for everyone,” he said after the vote.

Rep. Steven Smith said of the cell phone measure: “I can’t believe that anyone would make the argument that it is so vital that they get that call, right now, this instant, that they can ignore my children.”

Rep. Tim O’Flaherty blasted the 2014 cell phone legislation in a minority report: “This bill was brought to the (Transportation) committee as an attempt to expand the rarely enforced texting while driving ban. However, this overly broad bill goes too far, enabling the nanny state to reach even further into our lives.”

At least three New Hampshire lawmakers filed distracted driving legislation for the 2014 session. Their plans received strong support from police, transportation and safety representatives at a House Transportation hearing Jan. 14, but only State Rep. Laura Pantelakos’ cell phone measure emerged from the panel in its mid-February deliberations.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court upheld the second-degree assault conviction of a man who admitted to reading a text message as his vehicle crossed a center line and hit another vehicle, leaving a teen with brain damage. A justice said Feb. 11 that Chad Belleville’s driving was a “gross deviation from the conduct of a law-abiding citizen.” He is in prison for up to seven years. Read more about the high court texting ruling.

“In the last six years, as many as 28 percent of New Hampshire’s fatal crashes related to distracted driving,” State Police Lt. Matt Shapiro told a House Transportation Committee hearing on distracted driving legislation Jan. 14. “The current law is insufficient and many times unenforceable.” Shapiro heads the state Collision Analysis and Reconstruction Unit.

State Reps. Sylvia Gale and Janice Schmidt prefiled House Bill 1117, which would ban handheld cell phone use while driving. The fine would be $100, the same as the existing texting penalty. Another bill from the pair of Democrats from Nashua seeks to regulate use of cell phones by school bus drivers as well as taxi and limo drivers.

Gate told HandsFreeInfo that “one or both (of the bills) will likely be amended prior to committee hearings as our goal is to being forward legislation that will enhance driver/rider safety with the optimum of enforceability.” Gale has said she might seek to toughen the penalty.

Fourteen fatal crashes in New Hampshire during 2013 are linked to distracted driving, state officials said early in 2014. Two deaths were blamed on cell phone use. The total number of fatal crashes blamed on distractions appears to be the most on record, the Union Leader reported. In 2012, six fatalities were linked to distractions.

A high-profile distracted driving-related death occurred just before the new year as former Amherst fire chief John Bachman was killed by a driver who admitted texting. Bachman was getting his mail at the time. The driver charged with felony negligent homicide. The fire department asked people to take a pledge not to text & drive, in honor of the late chief.

The DOT has been using its electronic bulletin boards to fight distracted driving. The message says, “Don’t wreck it all with one text or call.”

State Rep. Sylvia Gale’s handheld cell phone bill of 2014 will apply to all drivers, she told the Eagle Tribune: “It’s all ages of people on the highway who are not paying attention to their driving.”

2011 distracted driving legislation:
HB 397: Seeks to contemporize current ban on drivers viewing TV signals with added prohibition of watching “dynamic visual images.” Long list of exceptions such as screen viewing related to operation of vehicle and navigation. Approved by the House on March 15 and then by the Senate on April 27. (Packard)

House Bill 546: Would prohibit use of handheld cell phones by drivers. Primary enforcement. Police would be allowed to examine cell phones to determine if a violation occurred. Fine: $100. Set aside by the Transportation Committee on March 17. (Pantelakos)

Distracted driving notes (archive):
No legislation seeking a ban on drivers’ use of handheld cell phones was approved during the 2011 General Court session.

The House and Senate voted to liberalize the current ban on driver viewing of video screens, to allow use of dashboard screens that have navigation, traffic and other vehicle-related information.

State Rep. Laura Pantelakos has filed HB 546, which seeks to ban handheld cell phone use while driving in New Hampshire. Pantelakos, D-Rockingham, previously tried and failed to get New Hampshire lawmakers to outlaw the handheld cell phones (below).

Rep. David Welch, R-Kingston, a sponsor of HB 546, expects removal of the provision that allows police to examine cell phones as it “appears that would be very questionable as to constitutionality.”

New Hampshire transportation officials say distracted driving and tailgating account for as much as a third of non-fatal vehicle crashes so far in 2010. As of early November, the state already has topped the number of roadway fatalities compared with 2009. Officials blame the 23 percent increase in fatalities on distracted driving. “We are sliding backward instead of forward,” said Peter Thomson, coordinator for the New Hampshire Highway Safety Agency. “We do have some problems with distracted driving.”

2010 legislation:
HB 34: Prohibits text messaging and any other use of two hands for typing on an electronic device. Fine $100. Approved in the New Hampshire House and Senate. Signed into law by Gov. John Lynch on July 31 and went into effect Jan. 1, 2010.

HB 294: Would have prohibited text messaging while driving and use of two hands for typing on an electronic device. (Retained in committee as HB 34 advanced.)

Legislation notes:
“It is clear that texting while driving poses a serious danger on our roadways,” Gov. John Lynch said as he approved the anti-texting legislation House Bill 34. “This new law sends a strong message that drivers should be attentive to the road, and those around them at all times.”

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