LACONIA – At midnight, New Hampshire will become the 12th state to pass an outright ban on the use of all hand-held electronic devices by drivers in car on a public way.
The state's Hands Free Law was signed by Gov. Maggie Hassan on July 25, 2014, after passing the Legislature on May 7. The nearly one-year wait before the law taking effect was intended to give the state and local authorities an opportunity to wage a massive campaign to educate the state's drivers.
In signing the bill, Hassan said electronic devices used by drivers in automobiles represented "an increasing danger we must address."
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of May 5, 2015, 11 states, Washington D.C., Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands had all passed similar laws. Most other states have addressed a hands-free policy for school bus drivers and for drivers 18 or under. In New England, New Hampshire follows Connecticut and Vermont in passing a total ban on the use of electronic devices while driving.
In New Hampshire, the first violation costs the driver $100 plus a penalty assessment of 17 percent. The penalty for subsequent offenses within two years is $250 for a second offense and $500 for a third. Both include the penalty assessment.
"I am 100-percent supportive of this law," said Gilford Police Chief Anthony Bean Burpee, who said his department, as have the others in Belknap County, has issued several press releases, has posted messages on both Facebook and Twitter and has gotten involved in the N.H. Police Chief's campaign called Driving Toward Zero – One Death Too Many.
Gilford Police photocopied the poster they got from the N.H. Police Chief's campaign on bright orange paper and started distributing copies about six weeks ago. A few of those bright orange posters ended up in the toilets at the Gilford Public Library, including one over the urinal in the men's room.
"We post everything we get," said Katherine Dormody said yesterday. She also noted that she is a big supporter of the law and was glad to help the police any way she could.
In Laconia, Capt. Bill Clary said notices were sent to every department – especially the schools as well as Twitter, Facebook, Laconia Links, and the Police Department's Web Page. He said School Resource Officer Steve Orton has worked with the students at Laconia High School and the schools themselves have worked hard to get out the message.
"This will make for much safer roads," Clary said.
Belmont Police Lt. Richard Mann said his department also piggy-backed on the state campaign. He said it has put a public service bulletin on an electronic sign on Route 3 because the man who owns it allows the town to put up public service announcements when it's not rented.
"I was shocked when I learned that 28 percent of traffic deaths in the state could be attributed to cell phone use," Mann said.
Mann also emphasized that the law states that all electronic devices, including cell phones, Global Positioning Sensors, tablets and iPods are illegal to operate while driving. Calling 9-1-1 in an emergency is the only exception.
"If it's original equipment in a car it's okay," said Mann.
Mann said Belmont will go forward with a no-grace-period approach.
"How can anyone say they didn't know about this?" he asked rhetorically. "Even my boys know about this and they're all too young to drive."
As a comparison, he said if people from Massachusetts get arrested with marijuana, New Hampshire police don't just say, "Okay, never mind."
Mann, Clary, and Bean Burpee all said good portions of their campaign were working with and through their individual school districts to get the word out to high school students, generally using the School Resource Officers. At Shaker Regional High School, Mann said various officers, but usually SRO Joe Marcello, attended driver's education programs to discuss the rules of the road with an recent emphasis on this one.
Smaller community police chiefs, like Stephen Hankard of Sanbornton, said his department posted all the state fliers and personally warned people who were stopped for any reason about the upcoming law changes. Since Sanbornton has an elementary school, he said a campaign in there really wouldn't have made a lot of sense, but that Winnisquam Regional High School had a lengthy campaign using Tilton's School Resource Officer Bill Patten.
All four officers said they work in towns or cities that have banned cell phone use for all municipal vehicles.
Laconia Police created a hands-free policy for all of their police officers that became effective at the beginning of this year. The other three police departments interviewed noted similar internal policies as well as town policies against using electronics while driving.
In Gilford, Bean Burpee said all of their front-line cruisers have either have Blue Tooth capabilities or have built-in hands-free devices. By next year, Bean Burpee said the department cruisers should all have factory-installed hands-free equipment.
Clary said he initially didn't want to get the hands-free option in Laconia's two newest cruisers, but decided at the last minute to get the package that also includes an additional safety device.
The drawback for Laconia is that the factory package only allows four cell phones to be programmed into it and more than four officers drive the front-line vehicles. For police purposes, "front-line" means the newest cruisers that are on the road virtually 24-hours a day. He said one cruiser is typically used by a minimum of three officers in three shifts during one 24-hour period and it's harder to schedule cruiser assignments when only four officers can use the hands-free system.
"I want to test it," he said, noting that if it makes sense, he'll begin ordering it for all of the newest cruisers to come. Clary also noted that many of his officers were already Blue Tooth-enabled on their own because of the internal policy change. He noted that except for certain outlying sectors of the city, if any information needs to be exchanged that can't be broadcast over the police radio, then it's just as efficient for the officer to come to the police station.
Hankard and Mann said all of Belmont's cruisers are equipped with devices that have been purchased from private companies and installed in the cruisers. As they go forward with new cruisers, both expect to take advantage of the hands-free package offered by Ford Motor Company.
Laconia Chief Chris Adams said yesterday that his department is not going to become "a ticket factory" on the first day of the new law. He added that because of the sheer amount of upfront public announcements, the nice guy approach wasn't going to last very long, though.
"There has been a massive amount of publicity about this and I can't imagine most people don't know about it," he said.
"I can well imagine we're going to be very busy Wednesday morning," he said.
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