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NHPR News Primer: N.H.'s Cell Phone Ban

Sara Plourde

Gov. Maggie Hassan is expected to sign legislation making it illegal to use a hand-held cell phone while driving or stopped in traffic.

The bill, passed by the New Hampshire House last week, represents “the most comprehensive distracted driving bill in the nation,” according to legislative testimony from Earl Sweeney, assistant commissioner of public safety.

The law would take effect July 1, 2015, and make New Hampshire the 13th state, along with the District of Columbia, to prohibit drivers from using hand-held devices to make or receive calls, send text messages or search the Internet.

Here’s a look at the details of House Bill 1360 and a breakdown of the debate.

So, shut up and drive, right?

Yes – unless you’re over the age of 18 and have a Bluetooth-enabled phone or other hands-free device that is “electronically integrated” into the vehicle.

Headsets or ear pieces “by which a user engages in conversation without the use of either hand” are also permitted.

The law does not allow hand-held cell phone use at traffic lights and stop signs. To make non-emergency calls, you’ll have to pull over to the side of the road and stop the car.

Drivers under 18 are prohibited from talking on the phone, hands-free or not.

What about texting and driving?

New Hampshire banned sending text messages while driving in 2009. The new law extends that ban to reading text messages, playing games, watching videos or searching the Internet on your cell phone.

Inputting an address into a GPS while the vehicle is in motion is also prohibited.

Can I be pulled over for using my cell phone while driving?

Yes. New Hampshire’s law has a “primary enforcement” provision. That means if a police officer observes you driving with a phone to your ear, you could be pulled over and ticketed without having committed another offense.

Violators will be fined $100 for the first offense; $250 for the second; and $500 for subsequent violations within a 24-month period.

What if I need to use my cell phone during an emergency?

The law allows drivers to make 911 calls and to report emergencies to police and fire departments without first stopping the vehicle.

Will the new law make New Hampshire’s highways safer?

Supporters say research on distracted driving strongly suggests it will.

Using federal data on driver cell phone use, for example, the National Safety Council estimates that, in 2011, 1.2 million crashes – almost 23 percent of the total – involved drivers talking on a cell phone. Another 100,000 crashes involved drivers who were sending or reading text messages.

In 2006, researchers at the University of Utah used a simulator to compare behind-the-wheel behavior of fully attentive drivers, drivers using either a hands-free or hand-held cell phone and drunk drivers. They concluded that drivers on the phone followed more closely and were less responsive, and therefore showed greater impairment than those who had been drinking.

Opponents of the new law say data on the subject is far from conclusive.

They point to a 2010 study by the Highway Loss Data Institute comparing insurance claims in three states and the District of Columbia. The results showed that hand-held cell phone bans did not lead to a reduction in crashes. The Institute also found that texting bans don’t reduce collisions either.

Some opponents also say the law will difficult to enforce, while still others warned of the proverbial slippery slope.

“What’s next?” said Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry. “Cigarettes? Women doing their makeup or hair?”

Will a ban on cell phones at least change driver behavior?

Unfortunately, the data on that score isn’t promising.

A survey of 1,003 people in 2012 by the Consumer Reports National Research Center found that more than 70 percent of respondents reported they had stopped using a cell phone to make calls or text while driving. More than half of that group said they did so because of state laws, up from 44 percent in 2010.

Still, one in four respondents didn't know whether their state prohibits texting or cell phone calls behind the wheel.  

Closer to home, 51 percent of Granite State drivers make or receive phone calls on hand-held phones while driving, according to an anonymous poll on distracted driving conducted by Mt. Washington Assurance Corporation. About 22 percent read or sent texts while driving. Only 12 percent said they were willing to stop using their mobile devices while driving. Younger drivers are apparently the most reluctant to put down their phones and drive: one third aged 17-44 said they would not change their behavior at all.

The good news? Only two percent reported browsing the Internet while driving.

The legislation calls for a public education program to alert drivers to changes inthe law.

What happens when I cross the border into a neighboring state?

Vermont passed a law similar to New Hampshire’s last week that requires Bluetooth or other hands-free technology when using a cell phone while driving, except to call for emergency assistance.

Massachusetts and Maine both prohibit texting while driving, while the use of hand-hand cell phones is allowed for drivers 18 and older.

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