EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 16, 2013

N.H. lawmakers to revisit distracted driving

Lawmakers propose banning hand-held cell phones

By John Toole

---- — CONCORD — New Hampshire lawmakers are renewing efforts to crack down on distracted drivers.

Reps. Sylvia Gale and Janice Schmidt, both D-Nashua, want to ban hand-held cell phone use. The proposal includes a $100 fine for drivers who disobey.

“Driver inattention seems to be getting worse,” Gale said. “I see it enough to know it’s a concern.”

A constituent appealed to Gale for help after being forced into the breakdown lane by another driver talking on a cell phone, she said.

The state Department of Transportation has recently cautioned drivers on highway message boards: “Don’t wreck it all with one text or call.”

State law already provides for fines of up to $1,000 and the loss of license for one year for distracted drivers who injure others or cause property damage.

But Gale said she wants a law in place to deter distracted driving before injuries and property damage occur.

She isn’t just concerned about young drivers.

“It’s all ages of people on the highway who are not paying attention to their driving,” she said.

Rep. Laura Pantelakos, D-Portsmouth, also is submitting a bill dealing with distracted drivers.

New Hampshire Highway Safety Agency coordinator Peter Thomson said state officials are now reviewing the issue of distracted driving, conferring with counterparts in other states, and could get behind one of the bills.

“The distracted driving issue is really starting to move quite quickly,” Thomson said. “We are taking a look at it.”

He acknowledged growing concern among lawmakers, but isn’t ready to predict whether the Legislature will pass a new law.

“Whether it goes through the Legislature, we don’t know,” he said.

He recalled that a tougher DWI law took time to gain legislative approval.

“We will see how far we can push this,” Gale said.

She would let drivers continue to use hands-free communication devices for calls.

Gale is eager to consult with law enforcement during the legislative process.

“I want to make sure if the law were to pass that it would be enforceable,” she said.

Gale said her bill likely will be amended and she herself might like to make it tougher.

“I don’t think the language is strong enough,” she said.

Gale and Schmidt also have a companion bill that would regulate use of cell phones by school bus, cab and limousine drivers.

Legislative consideration of distracted driving comes as the state Supreme Court is hearing an appeal tomorrow of a conviction stemming from a 2010 traffic accident in Pittsfield.

Chad Belleville of Barnstead, through his appeal, is questioning whether a judge made a mistake when he found him guilty of acting negligently or recklessly after losing control while checking a text message.

“He argues because he was only looking down to read a text on his cell phone, and not under the influence of alcohol, speeding, weaving around cars or otherwise driving to endanger, his conduct falls below the threshold necessary to establish recklessness under state law,” a court summary of the case reads.