Amherst and Milford police warn of hand-held device law

Local police promise strict enforcement of a new state law prohibiting the use of hand-held devices. The law goes into effect July 1.

“It has been a long time coming,” said Police Chief Mark Reams of Amherst, where the dangers of distracted driving hit home right before Christmas in 2013.

That was when retired Amherst Fire Chief John Bachman, and Katie Hamilton, a Brookline mother of three, were both killed in accidents that involved distracted driving.

And in both court cases, prosecutors did not prevail under existing law.

But both cases might have been resolved differently if a law similar to the one coming in July had been on the books, Reams said.

In the Amherst case, Travis Hobbs, 20, of Mont Vernon, was found not guilty of negligent homicide by a jury, despite having admitted that he was texting at the time of the crash. Prosecutors said Hobbs had his eyes off the road for 7.3 seconds when he hit Bachman, who was at his mailbox in front of his home.

In Hamilton’s death, the case against Greg Cullen, 31, of Milford was dismissed. Prosecutors say he admitted he was
checking his GPS device when his vehicle crashed into Hamilton’s SUV at the intersection of Routes 13 and 130 in Brookline.

Until now, the public “has not been willing to assign a high level of culpability” to distracted driving, said Reams, and police want to change that attitude, and “this law is a big part of it.”

New Hampshire police departments are all “pretty much on the same page,” when it comes to enforcement, said the Amherst chief, and Amherst police will be aggressive and there will officers in undercover vehicles looking for drivers using devices.

Milford, too

Milford Capt. Craig Frye said enforcement in his town “will be very strict” and the Milford Police Department will be aided by grant money helping pay for extra enforcement.

Until July 1, he said, a driver could say he or she was just dialing their phone, because the old law allowed it.

The new law says drivers cannot use any hand-held devices capable of providing voice or data communication while driving or while temporarily halted in traffic for a stop sign or traffic signal or other momentary delays.

Violators will be subject to penalties and license suspension or revocation, starting at $100 for the first offense and going to $500 for a third offense within two years.

The law includes cell phones, geographic positioning systems, tablets, iPods, iPads or other devices that require data entry.

Emergency calls to 911 or other public safety agencies will be allowed, and so will Bluetooth or other hands-free electronic devices, as well as one-hand, non-cellular two-way radio use.

For young drivers the law is even stricter.

Teens under 18 will not be allowed to use any electronic devices, hand held or not, except to report an emergency.

According to information from the Amherst Police Department posted on the town website, during the past four years there have been 116 fatal crashes in New Hampshire caused by distraction, and “the increasing use of electronic devices is fast becoming the primary distraction.”

Likely to crash

While texting, a driver is 23 times more likely to crash and even dialing a phone increases the risk of crashing by three times.

In Amherst police handled 4,066 motor vehicle accidents over the last 10 years, and the contributing factor in 1,171 of those was “driver inattention/distraction.”

“The use of cell phones and other hand-held devices was not the sole cause in all of those accidents, but is believed to be a contributing factor in an unfortunate and considerable number of those accidents, Reams said in an email.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or