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Highway Safety Initiatives

The Distracted Driving Problem: A Legislative Approach

Earl M. Sweeney, Assistant Commissioner, New Hampshire Department of Safety, IACP Highway Safety Committee


It is not often that a law enforcement agency has the satisfying experience of drafting a controversial piece of highway safety legislation, seeing it unanimously pass and signed into law, and knowing that the legislation will begin saving lives as soon as it takes effect. Such is the case with House bill (HB) 1360, “An act relative to use of certain electronic devices while driving,” which passed the New Hampshire legislature in May 2014.1

The state of New Hampshire, along with many other states and countries, has been coping with the perils of distracted driving for several years now. The phenomenon is growing and threatens to eclipse drunk driving and drugged driving as the number one cause of highway fatalities.2 There are many causes of distracted driving—billboards, conversations with passengers, and eating or applying makeup, to name a few. Regardless of the specific distraction, drivers’ eyes are increasingly not on the road ahead, and their hands are occupied away from the steering wheel.

Many of these distractions cannot be “legislated away,” and the only solution seems to be education. However, today’s motorists are “wired” from the moment they enter their vehicles, and the use of handheld devices is one type of distraction that can, to some extent, be affected by legislation.

There are three principal forms of distraction: (1) manual, where the driver’s hands are performing a task, such as fiddling with the controls of a device; (2) visual, where the driver’s eyes are diverted from the road ahead; and (3) cognitive, where the driver’s mind is wandering due to some task other than driving that he or she is performing while the vehicle is under way—all of which are involved in cellphone use.3 There has been a wealth of research on this issue, and text messaging has been determined to be a particular problem. It takes an average of five seconds to read or write a text message, during which a car going 55 miles per hour travels the length of a football field.4

Even a hands-free cellphone conversation causes cognitive distraction in a driver, to the extent that his or her reflexes are similar to those of someone impaired with a .08 blood alcohol content. In the most recent year for which statistics were available, 5,474 persons were killed and 448,000 injured in the United States due to distracted driving, without counting the many drivers who were distracted at the time of a crash, but did not admit it to the police. In 2009, 18 percent of fatal crashes and 25 percent of all crashes involved drivers who admitted distracted driving, and the figure rises each year.5

Drivers know the risks—90 percent of drivers surveyed by the American Automobile Association said they realize the dangers of text messaging while driving, but 35 percent still do text while driving; and 88 percent recognize the dangers of cellphone usage while driving, but two-thirds of drivers still make cellphone calls from behind the wheel.6

The odds are against distracted drivers. Someone punching numbers into a cellphone is 2.8 times more likely to be involved in a crash, and someone talking or listening to a cellphone while driving is 1.3 times more likely; someone reading materials (including text messages) while driving is 1.4 times more likely; and someone text messaging is an alarming 2.3 times more likely to be involved in a crash.7 It’s obvious that whatever law enforcement can do to improve these odds will saves lives, reduce personal injuries and property damage, and make better drivers.

New Hampshire has had a law banning text messaging while driving since 2010, which states “A person operating a moving motor vehicle and writes a text message or uses two hands to type on or operate an electronic or telecommunications device, is guilty of a violation. A person does not write a text message when he or she reads, selects, or enters a phone number or name in a wireless communications device for the purpose of making a phone call.”8

When officers attempted to enforce this law, they soon found that even when a motorist was observed holding a cellphone with two hands, it could not be easily proven that he or she was writing a text message. Also, many savvy motorists simply held the phone in their laps and wrote or received text messages out of the view of police on patrol. They could also claim they were not texting—but merely scrolling through their cellphone directories to make a call.

When the 2014 legislative session rolled around, the New Hampshire Department of Safety drafted a piece of legislation that would eliminate the use of handheld electronic devices while driving. The department realized that there would be a number of influential stakeholders interested in the bill, including cellphone companies, public safety agencies, businesses that used mobile radios, and the trucking industry, and it was going to be a challenge to get them all to the point where they would support the bill or, at least, not actively oppose it. It was also realized that police officers were some of the most prolific users of handheld cellphones, which was viewed by the public as a double standard. Therefore, it was determined that this legislation would not, unlike similar laws in the past, provide an exemption for law enforcement.

The department tasked State Police Lieutenant Matthew Shapiro, who had been successful in working with legislators in the past, with taking the lead on the bill. He scheduled personal meetings with dozens of state legislature members, as well as numerous stakeholders and lobbyists, and was tireless in brokering various compromises and placating the fears of potential opponents to the bill.

HB 1360 passed both legislative houses to be signed into law by Governor Margaret (Maggie) Hassan, and will take effect on July 1, 2015, which allows the Department of Safety time to develop and implement a public education program in collaboration with the Governor’s Highway Safety Agency, the Department of Transportation, and other available public and private sector participants. The bill also calls for a targeted public information program to alert the driving public to the passage of this law.

The key elements of the bill include the following:

  • A driver, even when halted in traffic or at a stop, is prohibited from illegally using any handheld mobile device that can provide voice or data communications—illegal uses include electronic messaging (text or email), making or receiving calls, accessing the Internet, typing data, or inputting information into a navigation device.
  • A person is exempt if he or she has pulled the vehicle off to the side of the road in a legal area, and the vehicle remains stopped.
  • Drivers are permitted to use a cellphone or other device to report an emergency to the enhanced 9-1-1 system or directly to a law enforcement agency, fire department, or emergency medical provider.
  • Drivers are permitted to use only one hand to transmit or receive messages on any noncellular two-way radio.
  • The use of Bluetooth or other hands-free electronic devices to send or receive information is permitted, provided the driver does not have to divert his or her attention away from the road ahead.
  • Any person under 18 is prohibited from using a cellphone or other mobile device, even a hands-free one, while driving or stopped in traffic except to report an emergency to 9-1-1 or a public safety agency—violations will result in suspension or revocation of the driver’s license.
  • Adult violators of this law will be subject to fines: $100 for a first offense, $250 for a second offense, and $500 for any subsequent offense within a 24-month period.9

For more information on the U.S. distracted driving prevention effort, resources, information on state laws, and tips on how to get involved, visit www.distraction.gov.

Just before the law passed, the New Hampshire Department of Safety issued a policy affecting the personnel in six of the department’s seven divisions, prohibiting officers from using a handheld electronic communication device while driving a state-owned or state-leased vehicle or a privately owned vehicle while being operated on state business.10 At the same time the New Hampshire Division of State Police, after consulting with the leadership of the Troopers’ Union, issued a General Order applying the same restrictions to state troopers.

The choices were stark. Either law enforcement addresses this safety hazard now while the chance exists, or it is only a matter of time before some tragedy occurs that leads to a huge outcry and clamor for stricter legislation that is too broad and sweeping. New Hampshire chose the first path. ?

Notes:
1An Act Relative to Use of Certain Electronic Devices While Driving, HB 1360, New Hampshire State Legislature, 2014, http://www.gencourt.state.nh.us/legislation/2014/HB1360.html (accessed May 29, 2014).
2Suzanne P. McEvoy, et al. “Role of Mobile Phones in Motor Vehicle Crashes Resulting in Hospital Attendance: A Case-Crossover Study,” British Medical Journal 331 (2005): 428.
3“Distracted Driving,” Injury Prevention & Control: Motor Vehicle Safety, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/distracted_driving (accessed May 29, 2014).
4“Texting,” Get The Facts, FocusDriven: Advocates for Cell-Free Driving, www.focusdriven.org/texting (accessed May 29, 2014).
5U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Distracted Driving 2009, Traffic Safety Facts: Research Note, September 2010, http://www.distraction.gov/research/PDF-Files/Distracted-Driving-2009.pdf (accessed May 29, 2014).
6“Teens Report Texting or Using Phone While Driving Significantly Less Often than Adults,” AAA Newsroom, December 11, 2013, www.newsroom.aaa.com/tag/texting-while-driving (accessed May 29, 2014).
7“The Facts—Texting and Driving, Deadly,” No Phone Zone, http://www.thenophonezone.org/the_facts.php (accessed May 29, 2014).
8NH Rev. Stat. Ann. (RSA) § 265.105-a.
9NH RSA 265.79-c; HB 1360.
10New Hampshire Department of Safety, Policy and Procedure 3-14, issued March 14, 2014.

Please cite as:

Earl M. Sweeney, “The Distracted Driving Problem: A Legislative Approach,” Highway Safety Initiatives, The Police Chief 81 (July 2014): 76–77.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXXI, no. 7, July 2014. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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