Safety officials warn of cellphone dangers after deadly accidents in Amherst and Brookline

AMHERST – The YouTube video shows a driving instructor telling his young instructees they must prove they can text while driving to pass the test.

Some of them balk until the instructor shows them official-looking documents for what he says are new regulations.

Hidden webcams along the road course and inside the car filmed the unknowing students as they tried to avoid obstacles while they drove while texting.

The film would be funny if it wasn’t so alarming.

Some of teens laugh, some cry at the impossibility of the task they’re asked to perform. One young man swears. Another declares, “I feel like an idiot who can’t drive.”

The video was produced by a safety organization in Belgium in 2012 to show the dangers of distracted driving. It’s an extreme example of the ways people concerned about road safety have been trying to convince others, especially young people, about the dangers of distracted driving.

In December, the dangers hit home locally when former Amherst Fire Chief John Bachman was killed while retrieving his mail from his mailbox. Police say a Mont Vernon man, Travis Hobbs, 20, was checking his email on his cellphone.

The next day in Brookline, a young mother of three, Katie Hamilton, the daughter of a volunteer firefighter, died after her car was rear-ended. Police said cellphone use or another form of driver distraction could have been a factor in that crash.

Members of the Amherst Fire Department were shocked and saddened by the deaths, and recently, Chief Mark Boynton posted a message in the department’s website asking department members to pledge to refrain from texting while driving. The local pledge is part of a worldwide effort to raise awareness about the dangers of phone use by drivers.

And dangerous it is. The percentage of New Hampshire fatal crashes blamed on driver inattention or distraction reportedly more than doubled last year, from six in 2012, to 14 in 2013.

New Hampshire has a three-year-old ban on text messaging while driving, as well as a distracted driving law that includes applying make-up, eating, cellphone use or doing virtually anything that takes attention away from the road. The state does not specifically have a law for cellphones, although two state Legislators have reportedly submitted bills to ban the use of handheld cellphones while driving.

According to a 2009 study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, a driver using a mobile phone is four times as likely to have a crash than a driver not using a phone and texting increases that risk by 23.2 times,

Total device ban?

Amherst Police Chief Mark Reams would like to see state legislators consider a total ban on electronic devices by drivers, or at least a ban on cellphone use in any form by novice drivers.

“NH drivers are still permitted to read, select or enter a number or name in a cellphone for the purpose of making a phone call,” Reams said in an email.

Wilton Police Chief Brent Hautanen said distracted driving has been “a huge problem” in his town for quite a few years, and he hopes the Amherst Fire Department pledge raises awareness of the dangers.

The Wilton chief is not optimistic, however, that the message will be heard in communities not directly affected.

There is always so much bad news, he said, that safety messages don’t stay long in people’s minds, especially the minds of young people, who think, “It can’t happen to me.”

Hautanen and other safety officials hope that refrain will be replaced by the one on the pledge: “No matter the message, it can wait!”

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at kcleveland@cabinet.com or 673-3100, ext. 304.