NH texting while driving ban takes effect Jan. 1

AP News
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Posted: Dec 21, 2009 10:28 AM

Tina Derby loves the ease and speed of text messages, even while driving, and sees no need to pull over to tap her fingers on her phone.

Come Jan. 1, her texting while behind the wheel could cost her a $100 fine if she gets caught in New Hampshire.

"I'd better start saving my money," said Derby, 42, of Warner.

Derby acknowledges banning texting probably is a good idea because the practice isn't very safe _ just as speeding is risky _ but she can't guarantee she will never speed _ or stop texting and driving because it is so convenient to put her cell phone on the wheel and text a quick message with two fingers.

As of Jan. 1, New Hampshire, Oregon and Illinois will join more than a dozen other states, the District of Columbia and Guam in having bans on sending text messages while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. New Hampshire's law also bans Twittering, typing on laptop computers or electronic devices while driving. An exception is made for entering a name and number in a cell phone to make a call.

The texting ban succeeded where numerous attempts to ban cell phone use while driving have failed in New Hampshire.

In 2002, the state enacted a law against negligent and distracted driving, but Assistant Safety Commissioner Earl Sweeney says that law is tougher to enforce than the texting ban because police must prove distracted drivers knew their actions were negligent in putting others at risk. The distracted driving law more typically is used to ticket drivers for failing to clear snow from vehicle roofs and windshields in the winter, he said. The snow flying off the cars is a hazard to other drivers. The fine is a minimum of $250 with a maximum of $500 for a first offense.

The negligent or distracted driving law doesn't specifically address text-messaging or typing on computers.

"It's quite a high bar where this text messaging specifically forbids texting," Sweeney said.

Lawmakers are getting tough on texting as reports of accidents blamed on it grow more frequent.

One of the deadliest was last year in California when a commuter train engineer ran through a red signal into an oncoming freight train, killing 25 people. Federal investigators said the engineer was text messaging 22 seconds before the crash.

A study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute concluded the collision risk was 23 times greater when drivers of heavy trucks texted while driving. Dialing a cell phone and using or reaching for an electronic device increased the collision risk about 6 times in cars and trucks, the study found.

Accident statistics in New Hampshire don't note whether cell phone use or texting was a factor, but Sweeney believes they have been. Crashes involving distracted drivers and drivers who cross the center line account for 21 percent of all fatal accidents _ and the number in those categories are growing, said Sweeney.

Enforcement of New Hampshire's texting ban could be tough because officers must see drivers texting, not just looking down at their phones, Sweeney said.

"You could pull them over to see what they're doing. If they're smart, the phone will disappear before you walk up to the car," he said.

Sweeney hopes the law by itself will discourage drivers from texting as not only illegal but also dangerous.

State Rep. Richard Drisko, R-Hollis, sponsored the bill for that reason.

"Some of the texting is just amazing, using two hands and holding the wheel with your knees. That's crazy," he said. "Some kids have a keyboard on their dashboard so they can text."

The law is getting mixed reactions among people hooked on the form or communication.

Jacqueline LeBlanc, a 19-year-old college student from Laconia studying criminal justice, avidly sends text messages and e-mails from her phone, but tries not to while driving.

"I think it's a good law because people get cocky about it," she said. "They're doing it far too often."

But Jon Shepherd, 26, of Lowell, Mass., on the New Hampshire border, insists he can text and drive safely. He sends text messages almost every time he drives and regularly uses his knees to steer, he said. He boasts that he could do it with one hand and maybe without looking at the cell phone keyboard after years of constant texting.

"It's dangerous for some people to do it," he said at a shopping mall in Concord, N.H.

But Shepherd said he wasn't one of them.

"I'm still going to do it," he said. "I'm not distracted. How different is that than looking at the radio?"