By John Toole
---- — CONCORD — A ban on drivers holding cellphones while driving in New Hampshire won House approval yesterday, 192-133.
Safety arguments prevailed in an hour-long debate over House Bill 1360, which had the backing of the state Department of Safety, state Department of Health and Human Services, and police chiefs.
“You can’t be fiddling with your phone while you’re driving,” said Rep. Steve Smith, R-Charlestown, urging passage.
Smith told lawmakers the bill is about making sure children and grandparents are safe when crossing the street in the path of 4,000-pound cars.
“What call is so important that you can’t wait five minutes to pull over?” Smith asked.
Rep. Candace Bouchard, D-Concord, agreed.
“No text message and/or phone call is more important than one’s life or the life of another,” Bouchard said.
Rep. George Sykes, D-Lebanon, asked lawmakers to consider what they themselves see out on the road.
“Your own experience tells you there is a problem,” Sykes said.
The bill applies to any mobile device, including tablets and laptop computers.
It is more restrictive for teenage drivers, banning those 17 and under from using a cellphone under any circumstances.
Fines range from $100 for a first offense to $500 for a third offense.
Rep. Karel Crawford, R-Moultonborough, supported the tougher restrictions for teenagers.
“They need to concentrate on driving, not on who or what is on their phone,” Crawford said.
Lawmakers who opposed the bill thought it would pose more problems than those it would solve.
Rep. James Belanger, R-Hollis, predicted drivers would defy such a law.
“They’re going to be hiding that cellphone so the cops don’t see it,” Belanger said.
Rep. Tim O’Flaherty, D-Manchester, described the bill as flawed, warned the language is unclear and will result in more court cases.
“The policies in this bill are overreaching,” O’Flaherty said.
He wondered if sponsors of the bill really wanted to stop people from using a phone when they are at a traffic light or stuck in traffic.
Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, in opposing the bill, questioned what difference it would make with people still allowed to drink coffee, smoke and apply makeup.
Rep. Michael Garcia, D-Nashua, another opponent, responded that it wouldn’t.
“You’re still allowed to be distracted,” Garcia said.
The House Republican Alliance wasn’t happy with the vote.
“This bill is a strong overreach of government into our private lives. Distracted driving, including texting while driving, has been in the law for years,” said Rep. Mark Warden, R-Goffstown. “Forbidding drivers to call home — or set their GPS — while stopped in traffic is a ridiculous intrusion into our private lives.”
If the Senate passes the bill and governor signs it, the new law would take effect Jan. 1, 2015.
In other action yesterday, the House rejected a reduction in the meals tax, killing HB 1597 on a 184-148 vote.
Rep. Susan Almy, D-Lebanon, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, told lawmakers the proposal would cost the state needed revenue.
“It would lose us $24 million a year,” Almy said.
That would affect state services, so passing the bill would mean budget reductions, she said.
“You need to figure out where you’re going to cut $24 million a year,” Almy said.