Recently, New Hampshire’s Hands Free Law has gone into effect, banning the use of all mobile electronic devices while driving. Hands-free systems are still allowed, but even the use of a cell phone while stopped at a traffic light is now illegal.
For drivers caught in violation of the law, the penalties are harsh. Instead of giving everyone the same ticket, the first offense will cost you $100, the second offense will cost you $250, and any subsequent offenses will cost you $500. State police have said they will be aggressively enforcing the ban, claiming it’s in the interest of public safety.
“Distracted driving rivals impaired driving as a top public safety risk on our roadways and it is killing people,” said State Police Colonel Robert Quinn.
On a certain level, it makes sense. In the last four years, New Hampshire has seen 124 crashes due to distracted driving, as well as nearly a fourth of fatal accidents. Forcing drivers to pay more attention to the road should, at least in theory, make the roads safer and save lives.
Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to be the case.
Quite a few states have already instituted cell phone bans, and as a result, quite a few studies have been done on how effective they are. When it comes to reducing the number of driver deaths, the vast majority of the research shows that, contrary to popular belief, cell phone bans are pretty ineffective.
In a lot of states where these bans have been instituted, the roads have been getting safer, which would lead people to initially believe they were successful. The problem is that states without bans have also seen their roads get safer. If banning cell phones use while driving was actually successful, you’d think states with such a ban would have seen even more rapid decreases than those without.
Back in 2011, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that cell phone bans don’t work. Later, a separate 2012 study by an economics grad student at Texas A&M found the exact same thing. In 2014, a third study confirmed what the first two already knew – passing a cell phone ban won’t actually make the roads any safer.
One obvious possibility is that drivers are simply ignoring the law and still use cell phones anyways. But a separate study from 2010 observed drivers during the day and found that the number of people using their cell phones dropped dramatically after the new laws went into effect. Perhaps more surprisingly, more than a year later, those same lower usage rates were observed again.
If aggressively enforcing distracted driving laws has been shown in multiple studies to have no significant effect on driver safety, then why would New Hampshire be wasting its time passing an ineffective law?
One likely reason is that it plays well with voters. No politician want to receive a reputation for being against driver safety, and passing laws that promote public safety looks good on your record in the next election cycle. Something like a cell phone ban sounds like common sense, so how could it not be a great idea?
There are actually a lot of similarities between cell phone bans and three-strikes laws. Both sounded like great ideas at the time, but neither one worked, and they both ended up costing citizens a lot of money.
No, New Hampshire’s citizens won’t have to directly pay higher taxes as a result of the new cell phone ban. The steep fines for breaking the law, however, make it look like lawmakers are mostly interested in using cell phone citations like speeding tickets to generate more revenue.
Over the next few years, we’ll be able to see just how effective New Hampshire’s new law has been, but if it’s anywhere near as effective as the rest of them, don’t get your hopes up.