Is NH hands free law working?

by Steve MacDonald

Just days after an article in the NH Union Leader reported DMV statistics showing rising crashes and deaths in the Granite State, from January through June 2016, the Nashua Telegraph posted a report titled “NH sees fewer road deaths since law took effect in 2015.”

The Telegraph is referring to the Hands-Free law passed by the Republican Majority Legislature in 2015 prohibiting the handling of portable electronic devices by the drivers of motor vehicles. The point of the law is to reduce collisions and fatal accidents by prohibiting people from the devil of distraction. But has it made things better or worse?

The headline from the Telegraph article is unequivocal. “NH sees fewer road deaths since law took effect.” But if you read the body of the article there is nothing to suggest this is true. There are no numbers. No data. We get supposition and hearsay with a side of speculation (just like before the law was passed). There is nothing conclusive that defends the headline.

So has New Hampshire seen fewer road deaths “since law took effect“? No.

Crash and fatality data from the New Hampshire Department of Safety (DoS) show no meaningful improvement in the number of fatal accidents, deaths, or even non-fatal-collisions since the law took effect. The numbers in 2015, the year the law took effect, were higher than three of the four years to proceed it.

2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Fatal Crashes 120 84 101 124 89 103
Resulting Fatalities 128 90 108 135 95 114
Non-Fatal Crashes 32157 32373 31549 29984 28395 29605

Not that fatal crashes and deaths on New Hampshire highways have ever shown a pattern of any kind relative to the presence or absence of any motor-vehicle related law. But is it possible the hands-free law has made matters worse?

I took the data from the DoS and the details reported to the Union Leader comparing the first six months of 2015 to the first six months of 2016. This gives us full 12-month period of data during which the hands-free law was in force.

2015.1 2015.2 *2016 12mo
Fatal Crashes *35 *68 55 123
Resulting Fatalities *38 *76 58 134

2015.1 is the first six months of 2015 backfilled from details provided here. 2015.2 is the balance after subtracting the first six months from the 2015 totals. The *2016 figures are from the UL article. This gives us a “twelve-month total” from July 1, 2016 to June 26, 2016.

If you compare that result to the annual totals since 2010 it is nearly identical to the 2013 numbers for fatal crashes and deaths. The highest year for both since 2010.

I feel obligated to point out that this is a very dry reading of the statistics. There are scores of possible factors involved in both fatal and non-fatal crashes. But if cell phone use while driving was truly the evil root of such things, and legislation was enacted to relieve us of this scourge, you’d expect there to be signs of improvement.

The ‘experts’ as they do in the Nashua Telegraph article feel an obligation to suggest improvement even if none exists.

Distracted driving had ranked as the second- or third-leading cause of New Hampshire road deaths for the prior 19 years, said Capt. Matthew Shapiro, highway safety commander for the New Hampshire State Police.

It dropped to sixth place in 2015 and is responsible for just one death – or about 2 percent of the total 55 road deaths through June 19 this year, according to Roberta Emmons, business systems analyst at the Department of Safety.

While the data is too preliminary to draw conclusions, Department of Safety officials say the numbers are promising.

People are dying in fatal accidents and you’ve decided it was not due to distraction but the data is too preliminary so don’t draw any conclusions.

Who feels better about distracted driving? Anyone?

It is my ‘expert’ opinion (and I drove professionally for many years) that nearly every crash can be tied to some form of distraction. Nothing ‘comes out of nowhere.’ Accidents happen because people are focused on something, even momentarily, other than driving.

People who take the responsibility of driving seriously avoid accidents daily because they put driving ahead of everything else. They change their behavior relative to the conditions of the road, the traffic, drivers around them, the vehicle’s operating condition, and their own known limitations including an awareness of what will distract them. They pay attention to details.

When you fail to pay attention to the details of driving you are distracted. Accidents that could have been avoided but were not are a product of that distraction.

Drugs or alcohol and driving are a bad mix because they deliberately impair your ability to perceive, understand, and react. You are distracted by design, whatever ability you had, has been impaired.

So when representatives of public safety suggest that the number of collisions resulting from ‘distracted driving’ declined, I refuse to believe them. I disbelieve  because human nature is the root cause of this ailment and legislators, no matter how gifted they may find themselves to be, cannot take that away. We have data from states that have had hands-free laws long enough to realise this truth.

Peer reviewed research confirms it.

But they can make things more dangerous, which that Telegraph article, despite the misleading headline, does make clear.

“In my opinion, where people before were holding the phone up on the steering wheel so they could … see what they are doing, now they are holding it on their lap so it is not visible to police, which is more dangerous because now they are looking down at their lap,” Nashua Police Officer Sean Mabry said last week.

It’s part of the reason why law-enforcers have mixed reviews about how well the stricter hands-free driving law is working since it took effect July 1, 2015.

Many of the reactions to my own article reported massive disobedience by the public as well, but of a more blatant variety, openly using devices while driving. But legions of operators are using devices in a manner that removes their eyes even further from the road than before the law went into effect. The result of that legislated change in behavior should be more crashes and mathematically that will lead to more fatalities.

So what do we know?

There has been no reduction in motor-vehicle crashes, fatal crashes, or fatalities.

While not conclusive, the 12-month trend since implementation suggests as many or more collisions, fatal crashes, and deaths, and that this trend could continue through 2016 and beyond.

A significant number of people are ignoring the law, or engaging in more dangerous behavior to subvert it, and the ‘experts’ and the general population know it.

The state police claim that driving-related deaths caused by ‘distracted driving’ are going down.

Not that long ago, New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch made public School drop-outs disappear. All he had to do was redefine what a dropout was and the numbers plummeted.

Hands-Free laws have yet to produce the results promised. New Hampshire will be no different. But the institutions that imposed the law and are tasked with reporting its success will feel a need to claim progress where there is none.