CONCORD, N.H. — Hand-held cellphone use would be banned while driving in New Hampshire in mid-2015 under a bill passed Thursday by the Senate.
The Senate's voice vote sends the bill back to the House to consider an amendment to require the state to educate the public about the ban. The House can vote to accept the change, kill the bill or ask the Senate to negotiate a compromise.
The bill would continue to allow adults to talk on cellphones while driving if they use hands-free phones, devices built into the vehicle and two-way radios. The House-passed bill also would ban all cellphone use by minors behind the wheel. The ban would apply while drivers are stopped temporarily, such as at a red light, but not if they have pulled over and stopped. The bill doesn't apply in an emergency.
Offenders would face a $100 fine for a first offense, a $250 fine for a second offense and a $500 fine for subsequent offenses within 24 months.
State law currently bans typing and sending text messages while driving but does not prohibit reading text messages, surfing the Internet, dialing phones or programming GPS devices while driving. Senate Transportation Chairman Jim Rausch said the bill would prohibit those actions.
"Anyone who holds a phone in the immediate proximity of the ear while in motion will be presumed to be engaged in a call," said Rausch, R-Derry.
Phones with Bluetooth capability can be integrated into hands-free systems in newer cars or drivers can buy a hands-free device or adapter, Rausch said. Drivers are allowed to push a button on their phones to answer them and use them hands-free, he said.
Sen. Andy Sanborn, who opposed the bill, said some people don't have the money to buy the equipment needed to adapt older phones.
"This legislation shows we're walking toward being a nanny state. We're telling people when they can answer the phone. Next, it will be when they can talk to the person sitting next to them," said Sanborn, R-Bedford.
But Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, said he sees people on phones driving erratically all the time.
"In the long run, we're saving lives," he said.
Gov. Maggie Hassan believes "we must continue to find ways to improve the safety of our roads by reducing distracted driving" and will closely review the bill, spokesman William Hinkle said.
Twelve states prohibit drivers from using hand-held cellphones and 41 states ban text messaging, according to the Governor's Highway Safety Council. Six other states prohibit texting by novice drivers.