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N.H. House OKs Cell Ban For Drivers

Measure targeting handheld cell phones heads to Senate

Concord — The House passed a bill Wednesday, 192-133, that would ban the use of handheld cell phones while driving, putting New Hampshire a step closer to joining 12 states with similar laws.

“Isn’t it time to address this problem of distracted driving?” asked Rep. George Sykes, D-Lebanon.

New Hampshire already has a law banning texting while driving. This bill would extend that ban to cover all use of a handheld cell phone, including talking, surfing the internet or using a navigation system.

Under the bill, no one under age 18 could use any cellular communication while driving, even with hands-free devices. Fines would start at $100 for the first violation, $250 for the second and $500 for the third within a two-year period.

The ban does not extend to hands-free devices for adults, and there was some confusion Wednesday as to what actions and devices that covers. Sykes, who is on the committee that heard the bill, said drivers would still be allowed to use bluetooth devices or cell systems built into their vehicle, as long as it requires only the push of a button.

Drivers could also pre-enter a destination into a cell phone navigation system and listen to the system while driving.

But opponents of the bill said it would be foolish to enact another law because the distracted driving statutes that already exist aren’t being enforced. The bill would also make it illegal for someone to use their cell phone when stopped at a traffic light.

“This bill unfairly suggests all users of cell phones or electronic devices are distracted. The vast majority of drivers have been operating their vehicles safely for years, even before hands-free technology hit the market. We should be enforcing distracted driving laws as they stand, rather than ending the use of cell phones for everyone,” House Minority Leader Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, said in a statement after the vote.

Other opponents said they were worried the bill would prevent people from responding to family emergencies.

The bill exempts calls to 911 or other emergency services, but would prohibit a driver from answering a call from a family member that could be about an emergency.

“We don’t need broad, overbearing laws that dictate when someone should take that emergency call,” said Rep. Tim O’Flaherty, D-Manchester.

But supporters said the bill is about safety, arguing too many fatal accidents are the result of distracted driving.

Rep. Karel Crawford, R-Center Harbor, teaches driving classes for young drivers and said the provision banning all cell phone use for drivers under 18 was particularly important.

“The less distraction teens have while driving, the safer they and the general public will be,” she said.

Rep. Steven Smith, R-Charlestown, called the bill a pro-liberty bill.

People should have the right to walk down the street and not be worried they or their children will be hit by a distracted driver, he said.

“I can’t believe that anyone would make the argument that it is so vital that they get that call, right now, this instant, that they can ignore my children,” he said.

The bill will now go to the Republican-led Senate.