If it's your New Year's resolution to stop texting while driving, a new law will enable police around the Granite State to help you keep it.
"Texting has become a social and cultural explosion," said state Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua. "It's done by people of all ages, and it's been shown by numerous studies that it is the number one most dangerous act you can do while driving."
Gov. John Lynch signed the law in August banning texting while driving. But it is still legal to text while driving in Massachusetts despite attempts to pass a ban there.
Campbell, who sponsored the New Hampshire bill, said recent studies have shown texting while driving to be even more dangerous than driving drunk.
The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, also bans using two hands to operate any other electronic device while driving. Violators can be hit with a $100 fine.
New Hampshire was the 15th state to outlaw texting while driving. Four have followed suit since August, bringing the total to 19. Six states, including Connecticut and New York, ban use of hand-held cell phones.
Campbell said he decided to sponsor the legislation after seeing a middle-aged man in a business suit driving a Volvo on the interstate — with a laptop on the dashboard. The state already has a statute that outlaws distracted or negligent driving, but Campbell said his research showed it had never been enforced.
"Eating a Big Mac or putting on your makeup, while they're dangerous behaviors, they're pretty hard to enforce," he said. Texting, he said, will be more clear.
New Hampshire State Police Capt. John LeLacheur said people are still free to talk on their phones — and the law allows people to enter numbers or letters to dial a phone number.
"We're not going to stop people from using their cell phones. It's not a cell phone ban," he said.
LeLacheur said serious instances of texting while driving are clear to police — he recently saw one.
"(A driver) had both hands on the top of the steering wheel and both thumbs going, so it was obvious to me that he was texting," he said.
Soon, that could result in flashing lights and sirens in the rearview mirror. But it might not mean a ticket just yet — LeLacheur said he expects police will hand out warnings first, unless there is an accident or very obvious offense.
"Any time there's a law change, we will do what we can to educate the public," he said.
People are free to bring cell phone records to court to contest the traffic violation, LeLacheur said.
Area police to enforce law as needed
But some local police departments said the new law will not lead to any major changes in how they operate.
Derry police Capt. Vern Thomas said officers will continue to pull over erratic drivers, just as they always have.
"It doesn't change anything for us about enforcement," he said. "Except that when you see someone impeding the flow of traffic and you determine that (texting) was the cause."
He said although it can be difficult to tell what a driver is doing behind the wheel, the department would be as vigilant as possible.
Salem police Capt. Shawn Patten agreed it could be hard to determine if there is reasonable suspicion somebody is texting.
"If it's a law on the books, we'll certainly enforce it if necessary," Patten said. "... The intent is to change the behavior, not be punitive. So hopefully, as with any enforcement effort, the behavior will change."
State Sen. Robert J. Letourneau, chairman of the Transportation and Interstate Cooperation Committee, said he thinks the law will be properly enforced.
"I think this is the first shot over the bow — to let people know we're serious about this," he said. "If it doesn't work, we'll tighten it up some more."
Letourneau said he was a "live-and-let-live-kind-of-guy," but supported the law.
"It's not the same thing as a seat belt law," he said. "That's a personal choice thing. If I'm not wearing a seat belt, I don't put your life at risk."
Proposed ban fails in Massachusetts
While a text-messaging ban succeeded in the New Hampshire Legislature, similar legislation encountered obstacles in the Bay State.
A bill passed the Massachusetts state Senate in May that would ban text messaging, e-mailing and surfing the Web while driving. The bill was sent to a conference committee, but a final version never made it to the governor's desk. That bill was passed a day after a Central Catholic High School senior was killed in a car crash in Methuen.
Police originally believed the victim, Rebecca Solomon, 18, of Methuen might have been texting, but later determined she was not. The vote also came a month after an MBTA trolley accident in Boston injured 50 people. The driver was text messaging his girlfriend, investigators said.
State Sen. Steven Baddour, D-Methuen, and state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, have expressed support for a statewide measure in the past. But some localities have taken the matter into their own hands.
The Boston City Council voted this month to outlaw texting while driving in the city. In Marblehead, voters will be able to voice their opinion on the practice with a warrant article that would outlaw texting while driving.
Drivers support new law
A small sampling of Southern New Hampshire drivers asked about the law said they generally favor it.
Diane Malley of Manchester said texting requires both hands and a lot of attention.
"I would say just talking on the telephone takes people's attention away from driving," Malley said. "It has mine."
She said that's especially the case with younger drivers, who have less experience and take a little longer to react, putting other people on the road at risk.
"It's a growing problem as more and more drivers text," she said.
Phil Gile of Londonderry, who does not text, said it's not just young people texting while driving.
"I've almost been hit quite a few times," he said. "It's not just young kids, either. I've seen guys my age, women my age."
His wife, Kim, said she thought texting was the most dangerous thing a driver could do.
"Texting requires concentration. You can't concentrate on driving while you're concentrating on that," she said. "I could see it causing a lot of accidents."
But Joyce Ozelius of Londonderry was conflicted.
"I think we're overregulating, but it's an issue," she said. "It's a problem."
While Ozelius said she does not always agree with creating new laws, she doesn't think anyone should text behind the wheel.
"You don't eat a turkey dinner while you're driving," she said. "It's just another distraction."
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