Amherst club supports campaign against distracted driving

AMHERST – The Amherst Junior Women’s Club has funded an effort to discourage distracted driving among newly licensed drivers and a bill under consideration by the governor may soon tighten existing laws.

The local nonprofit recently purchased antitexting thumb rings at the suggestion of Marilyn Bachman, the widow of John Bachman.

Bachman was a longtime local businessman and retired Amherst fire chief who was killed in December by a motorist while checking his mailbox outside his Merrimack Road home. Police said they believe the 20-year-old driver was distracted by the use of his cellphone.

“Our club wanted to honor the memory of her husband,” said Christina Zlotnick, of the Amherst Junior Women’s Club, “and Marilyn suggested the thumb rings, so we bought them and brought them to the high school.”

Marilyn Bachman said she hopes all drivers, not just young drivers, will make it a point to be more focused on the road.

“It’s a fabulous technology,” she said, “but we need to be responsible, and part of that is teaching.”

Souhegan High School Resource Officer John Smith will distribute the red silicone rings to teenagers nearing the end of their driving training. He is given two hours at the end of the course to educate new drivers about laws, current events and procedures they should follow when stopped by police.

Smith said the top three distractions for young drivers are “too many kids in the car, texting and inexperience.” He tells teenagers that the effects of texting while driving are equal to drunk driving.

He also cautions young drivers who have an inflated sense of confidence with respect to the use of mobile devices.

“Kids are getting cellphones earlier,” Smith said. “They believe they’re proficient by the time they start driving, and they don’t believe it will impede their driving ability.”

It’s illegal to text while driving in New Hampshire, but Smith said it’s a difficult law to enforce because drivers can usually claim they were making a phone call when questioned by police. Pending legislation, however, aims to strengthen the law.

HB 1360 would make it would make it illegal to use a cellphone while driving, unless the driver is either contacting 911 or is using a hands-free device. In addition, drivers younger than 18 would be banned from using a hands-free device unless the driver is contacting 911. Violators would be fined $100 for the first offense.

The bill passed a final vote earlier this month. Its prime sponsor, Rep. Laura Pantelakos, D-Portsmouth, has lobbied for passage of the legislation for more than a decade.

“It’s a very dangerous situation,” Pantelakos said, recalling how a city council member in her district was hit by a distracted driver. “I’ve always been very adamant about it. I raised seven kids, and I understand the need to multitask, but not in the car.”

Pantelakos said she expects the bill will be signed by the governor. The ban would take effect July 1, 2015.

In response to Bachman’s death, the Amherst Fire Department created an online pledge to encourage drivers not to text and drive: amherstnhfire.org/texting-pledge.

The It Can Wait campaign at itcanwait.com mirrors the effort on a national scale.