Road fatalities in New Hampshire spiked in 2013, hitting the highest level in five years and leading lawmakers to introduce proposals to dramatically expand laws penalizing distracted driving.
Authorities say 133 people died in 122 accidents on the state’s roadways in 2013. The last fatal accident of the year, on New Year’s Eve, claimed the life of 17-year-old Kyle Ross, of Derry.
Lt. Matt Shapiro, commander of state police special services units, said fatalities for 2013 are up 20 percent over 2012, but the causes behind highway deaths remain the same _ drug or alcohol impaired driving, distracted driving, speed and failure to use seatbelts.
Shapiro estimates 28 percent of fatal crashes over the past six years stem from distracted driving, but he wasn’t able to tell lawmakers at a hearing Tuesday how many accidents involved hand-held devices.
“People don’t admit to this conduct,” Shapiro said. “Virtually nobody says, `I was on the phone.”‘
Over the past decade, 70 percent or more of New Hampshire crash fatalities involve people who aren’t wearing seatbelts, Shapiro said.
“Impaired driving is the cause of at least a third of all fatal crashes,” Shapiro said.
He said texting while driving is an increasing problem but isn’t the only distraction involving hand-held electronic devices. Tapping in passwords to unlock screens, manipulating GPS systems and other conduct can be equally distracting. He supports proposed legislation to further limit cellphone use while driving and prohibit it altogether for drivers younger than 18.
Shapiro spoke at a recent legislative hearing on three bills that would penalize drivers for using electronic devices, but they differ widely in their scope.
One bill would ban hand-held cellphone use while driving while another would prohibit cellphone use by school bus, taxi and livery drivers. A third more comprehensive bill bans all electronic devices and other forms of distracted driving – including applying makeup and reading newspapers.
“A car is a lethal weapon,” said Rep. Laura Pantelakos, D-Portsmouth, chairwoman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and sponsor of the bill that would ban a litany of distractions.
State law currently bans texting while driving but doesn’t prohibit reading text messages, programming GPS systems or surfing the Internet.
Shapiro said drivers tend to text using one hand below the sight line of a police officer.
“The current law is insufficient and many times unenforceable,” Shapiro said.
Shapiro expressed frustration that, despite enforcement and education measures, two of the first stops of the new year on a short stretch of highway in Hampton Falls involved a car full of underage drinkers and a driver clocked at 116 mph.
Fatalities in 2013 are the highest since 2008, when 138 people died as a result of motor vehicle accidents on public roadways.
Eighteen people have died in New Hampshire accidents since Thanksgiving week, including a Vermont couple killed after a truck driven by a man police say was suicidal went airborne and sheared off the top of their SUV.
Former Fortune 500 executive Robert Dellinger of Sunapee is charged with two counts of second-degree murder in the Dec. 7 deaths of Jason Timmons and Amanda Murphy, who was eight months pregnant. Dellinger is being held without bond, but his lawyer said he plans to plead not guilty.
In one of the last fatal accidents of 2013, police say a Mont Vernon man was texting while driving when he struck and killed former Amherst fire chief John Bachman, who was getting his mail.
Prosecutors say 20-year-old Travis Hobbs told them he was texting and thought he had hit a snowbank. He came forward after seeing media reports about the crash.
“We know people are being seriously injured or killed,” Howard Hedegard of the New Hampshire Traffic Safety Institute told lawmakers. “Many people will only change their behavior when there’s a law that tells them to.”
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