By John Toole
---- — CONCORD — A House panel is recommending passage for a bill that would ban people from holding cellphones and making calls while driving in New Hampshire.
It would still allow hands-free calling, although not for drivers 18 and younger.
The ban would apply to the use of mobile electronic devices, including laptops and tablet computers.
House Bill 1360 is scheduled before the House today.
It has the support of the state Departments of Safety and Health and Human Services, as well as New Hampshire police chiefs.
The Transportation Committee recommended passage on a 13-3 vote.
“It’s a very good bill,” said Rep. Laura Pantelakos, D-Portsmouth, the prime sponsor.
She said she sees nine of 10 drivers using cell phones as they travel through one busy downtown Portsmouth intersection.
“This is not just young people,” Pantelakos said. “It’s everybody who is driving.”
Rep. George Sykes, D-Lebanon, will speak for the majority if there is a floor debate. He said the only opposition to the bill came from libertarian-minded lawmakers who didn’t think it was the government’s place to get involved.
“I’m very much in favor of it,” Sykes said. “The evidence is clear. Twenty-eight percent of the time in the last six years in New Hampshire, fatal crashes resulted from some type of distraction.”
That was second only to impaired driving as a factor in motor vehicle fatalities, Sykes said.
Rep. Tim O’Flaherty, D-Manchester, in a written minority report to the House, described the ban as a tremendous overreach by government.
“This bill was brought to the committee as an attempt to expand the rarely enforced texting while driving ban,” O’Flaherty wrote. “However, this overly broad bill goes too far, enabling the nanny state to reach even further into our lives.”
He argues that distracted driving does cause accidents, but people must choose responsibility.
“In a state with no mandatory seat belt laws for adults, this bill, which is modeled after the draconian distracted driving laws in Connecticut, would be one of the strictest mobile device bans in the country,” O’Flaherty said.
But young drivers, as well as those who need to hold a phone while placing a call, do have an option.
“They can pull over to do so,” Sykes said.
For Pantelakos, there is something more important here than an individual’s freedom to make a call as they see fit.
“It’s a safety issue,” she said.
Rep. Sherm Packard, R-Londonderry, said he hasn’t made up his mind about the bill yet and will be closely reviewing an amendment before the House.
“I do know it’s a problem,” Packard said of distracted driving.
The bill provides for fines of $100 for first offense, $250 for a second offense, and $500 for a third or subsequent offense in a 24-month period.