By Jo-Anne MacKenzie
---- — There should be a lot fewer drivers motoring through New England with a phone to their ear.
Hand-held cellphone bans are coming to New Hampshire and Vermont. The practice already is banned in Connecticut.
Minors at the wheel won’t be allowed to use a phone of any kind — hand-held or otherwise — in any of the six New England states if New Hampshire’s law takes effect July 1, 2015. Gov. Maggie Hassan has indicated she will sign the bill.
In neighboring Vermont, lawmakers reached a compromise on further restricting cellphone use there last week. Minors can’t drive and talk and, as of Oct. 1, no drivers will be allowed to use hand-held phones or other electronic devices.
Minors, often referred to as novice drivers, are at the highest risk of distracted driving involving cellphone use, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
New England lawmakers apparently concur. With the passage of laws in New Hampshire and Vermont, minors won’t be allowed to use cellphones anywhere in New England when behind the wheel.
Now, adult use is becoming more restrictive, too.
Connecticut took the lead in New England, enacting a hand-held ban in 2005. It was only the second state in the country to do so. New York’s ban took effect in 2001.
Proponents of restricting cellphone use cite some staggering statistics. So far this year, nearly 364,000 crashes nationally involved drivers using cellphones to talk or text, according to the National Safety Council.
In New Hampshire, 27 percent of fatal accidents over the past three years were attributed to distracted drivers.
Nationwide, at least one driver reported being distracted in 15 percent to 30 percent of all crashes, the Governors Highway Safety Association reported.
In 2009, nationally, 3,331 people were killed in accidents involving a distracted driver, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Talking on a phone or texting both fall under the broader category of distracted driving, which also includes talking to passengers, tuning the radio, eating, programming a GPS and reaching for something.
Opponents question need, enforceability
Opponents of tougher cellphone laws point to those other activities as equally dangerous — and invasive.
Londonderry Rep. Al Baldasaro, in a hearing before the Senate last month, wondering whether there was an end to such regulation. Would smoking or hair-brushing be next, he speculated.
Others suggested laws preventing such behavior could actually increase the risk from drivers who refuse to stop the practice, but endanger themselves and others further through furtive behavior — hiding a device below the wheel, for example, to avoid detection.
“Teens won’t obey the law, they will just lower the device and possibly increase accidents,” Derry Rep. Brian Chirichiello told a Senate committee.
Drivers are prohibited from texting in all but seven states nationwide, including all of New England. New Hampshire has banned texting at the wheel since 2009, but police and prosecutors say the law is tough to enforce, even tougher to prosecute.
House Bill 1360 is expected to make it easier for police to catch scofflaws.
N.H. State Police have taken the lead in what Lt. Matt Shapiro said will require “a cultural change.” As of April 1, all state police cruisers have been equipped with wireless technology for hands-free device usage.
Granite State drivers will have some time to get used to the idea. The law isn’t scheduled to take effect until July 1, 2015 — and a mandatory public education campaign will precede that.
It’s much the same in Vermont, where lawmakers delayed the effective date to allow for public education. There, the ban on hand-held devices starts Oct. 1, after a two-month public education campaign.
Massachusetts, Maine and Rhode Island continue to allow hand-held phone use, with the exception of minors. Public bus drivers are banned from doing so, too, in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
There are several bill proposals in Massachusetts that would ban or limit the use of hand-held devices, but none appear to have much traction.
Enforcement seems to be working in Connecticut and New York.
In 2010, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration funded pilot programs in Hartford, Conn., and Syracuse N.Y., to see whether “high visibility enforcement” was effective in reducing distracted driving. The program combined enforcement and public education, and proved effective.
N.H. will have ‘three-legged stool’
That’s the approach N.H. State Police will take, too.
It’s a three-legged stool, Shapiro said.
“You need to have all three — enforceable legislation, high-visibility enforcement and effective messaging,” he said Friday.
He said police are quite successful enforcing the state’s DWI laws because they have all three components at their disposal.
That hasn’t been the case with the texting ban.
“That’s because the only thing prohibited was text messaging, different from all the many things not prohibited — searching your contacts, using a keyboard, accessing the Internet, looking for directions, movie times, browsing the Internet, viewing and typing email,” he said. There are many, many, many modern applications that were not prohibited and one single application that was prohibited, which was texting.”
In 2012, he said, police issued nearly 100,000 tickets. Just 76 of those were for texting.
But, he emphasized, the law change is not about writing tickets or generating revenue for the state’s General Fund. It’s about saving lives, he said.
He pointed to a California study that analyzed traffic fatalities and injuries in the two years prior to that state enacting a hand-held ban and two years after the law took effect July 1, 2008.
”The hand-held cellphone ban appeared to save upward of 70 to 80 lives and prevent about 5,000 injuries during the two years following implementation of the law,” the study reported.
And that’s the ticket, as far as public safety and law enforcement officials are concerned.
Shapiro responded to those who say the new law won’t be any more enforceable than the current law.
“It surprises me people think it will be difficult to enforce,” he said. “So, if you see it going on all around you, how is it they think police won’t be able to see it?”
The delay between the bill’s passage and its enactment allow police and other public safety officials time to educate the driving public, N.H. State Police Col. Robert Quinn said. And it gives drivers time to purchase whatever equipment they might need for hands-free device use and, frankly, to get used to the idea.
“This law will prevent them from hurting themselves or somebody else,” Quinn said.
Cultural change required
People will have to change their behavior.
Drivers are distracted behind the wheel 25 percent to 50 percent of the time, a Governors Highway Safety Association report said.
Plymouth Rock more recently conducted a distracted driving survey of 3,300 Northeast drivers. More than half the drivers reported using a hand-held cellphone. Massachusetts topped that list, with 58 percent of drivers, but New Hampshire was close behind with 52 percent.
The numbers were lower for text messaging, but 45 percent of drivers in both states who admitted texting said they did so weekly.
Most drivers knew better.
Ninety percent of Massachusetts drivers surveyed said they were aware of the texting ban. Just 62 percent of Granite State drivers said they knew the law.
Knowledge of laws regarding hand-held devices was much worse. Just 11 percent of New Hampshire drivers and 19 percent of Bay State drivers acknowledged they knew the law.
By contrast, 91 percent of Connecticut drivers knew the state’s texting law and 87 percent were aware of the hands-free requirement.
Connecticut’s “Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other” campaign proved effective in terms of reaching drivers. Recognition started at about 5 percent and increased to more than 50 percent after several education campaigns.
In New Hampshire, state police already have a partnership with the Driving Toward Zero Deaths Coalition, which will help with the public education component of HB 1360.
Shapiro said he expected electronic messages would start appearing on state highways in the spring as the enactment date draws closer.
And, he said, he’s confident most drivers will get the message.
“It’s a small state, there are only so many roads,” he said. “I do believe people will understand and change their driving habits.”