EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 19, 2014

Editorial: Eyes on the road, hands on the wheel

The Eagle-Tribune

---- — New Hampshire lawmakers today will consider three proposals to strengthen the state’s distracted driving laws.

One would make hand-held cellphone use illegal. Another would target bus and taxi drivers. The third, the most restrictive, would ban the use of all electronic devices when behind the wheel and also address other distractions — eating, reading, putting on makeup.

The state already bans texting while driving, as do 40 other states, but drivers can still legally read text messages and look up directions on an electronic device while behind the wheel.

While cellphone restrictions for drivers are becoming more common, this is New Hampshire, where seat belts, motorcycle helmets and car insurance are all optional.

New Hampshire instituted a texting ban in 2010 and was followed later that year by Massachusetts. Enforcement numbers are low, numbering in the hundreds, a fact often cited by opponents of further restrictions.

If Granite State lawmakers opt to strengthen the law and ban hand-held use, it would become the 13th state to do so. It would be unusual to see the Live Free or Die State on the cutting edge of any restriction on personal freedom, but one the state could be proud of.

Police and highway safety officials have spoken out in favor of the restrictions.

N.H. State Police Lt. Matt Shapiro said the current law isn’t restrictive enough and that’s evident in the increasing number of fatal accidents attributed to distracted driving.

He said as many as 28 percent of fatalities on New Hampshire highways over the past six years are related to distracted driving.

The number of people who died on the state’s road was at a five-year high in 2013, when 133 were killed. The number of fatalities was up a staggering 20 percent over 2012. Shapiro acknowledged the cause of those accidents remains unchanged — impaired driving, speed, no seat belt use and distracted driving.

Impaired drivers, pedal-to-the-metal motorists and a cavalier attitude toward seatbelt use have all been around for decades. But distracted drivers — and the results of their behavior — are on the rise.

Nationally, in 2011, 3,331 were killed and another 387,000 people injured in accidents involving a distracted driver. One has to wonder how important those messages and calls were.

Two years ago, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said it would be “impractical” to ban cellphone use by drivers. He said people rely on their phones and use drive time to use them. He’s probably right.

But no one is suggesting banning cellphone, rather the proposal calls for allowing only hands-free usage.

Opponents will point to the low enforcement rate of the texting ban in both states. But just because police aren’t writing thousands of tickets for drivers who text doesn’t mean the laws have had no effect.

The majority of drivers hesitate to knowingly break the law. It’s impossible to gauge the success of the texting bans on the number of tickets issued.

Consider the laws requiring drivers to clear their vehicles of snow and ice before hitting the highway. It’s the law — and it is enforced — so most drivers do it.

The same would undoubtedly prove true if hand-held devices were banned, and enforcement would be easier than it now is when police often can’t distinguish between dialing and texting.

Few drivers, even those who object to further restrictions, could argue against such a ban if they were behind the wheel when someone died because they had to call home to see if they needed to stop for milk.