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Last session the NH legislature passed RSA 265:79-c which stipulated that drivers are not to be distracted by cell phones while driving. Looking past the fact that distracted driving was already illegal, let’s delve into exactly what that’s going to mean.

Here’s the text of the RSA, going into effect July 1st, 2015.

265:79-c Use of Mobile Electronic Devices While Driving; Prohibition. –
I. (a) No person, while driving a moving motor vehicle upon a way or temporarily halted in traffic for a traffic control device or other momentary delay, shall use any hand-held mobile electronic device capable of providing voice or data communication, including but not limited to: reading, composing, viewing, or posting any electronic message; or initiating, receiving, or conducting a conversation; or initiating a command or request to access the Internet; or inputting information into a global positioning system or navigation device; or manually typing data into any other portable electronic device. An operator of a motor vehicle who holds a cellular telephone or other electronic device capable of voice communication in the immediate proximity of his or her ear while such vehicle is in motion is presumed to be engaging in a call within the meaning of this section.

(b) “Driving,” for the purposes of this section, shall not include when a person is behind the controls of a vehicle that has pulled to the side of or off the road at a location where it is legal to do so and where the vehicle remains stationary.

II. It shall not be an offense under this section for any person driving a motor vehicle upon a way:

(a) To make use of a cellular telephone or other electronic device capable of voice communication to report an emergency to the enhanced 911 system or directly to a law enforcement agency, fire department, or emergency medical provider.

(b) To use one hand to transmit or receive messages on any non-cellular 2-way radio.

(c) To use a Bluetooth enabled or other hands-free electronic device, or a similar device that is physically or electronically integrated into a motor vehicle, for such a purpose to send or receive information provided the driver does not have to divert his or her attention from the road ahead. As used in this section, “hands-free electronic device” means a mobile electronic device that has an internal feature or function, or that is equipped with an attachment or addition, whether or not permanently part of such mobile electronic device, by which a user engages in conversation without the use of either hand; provided, however, this definition shall not preclude the use of either hand merely to activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of the telephone.

III. Any person who violates this section shall be guilty of a violation and shall be fined $100 plus penalty assessment for a first offense, $250 plus penalty assessment for a second offense, and $500 plus penalty assessment for any subsequent offense within a 24-month period.

IV. No person less than 18 years of age shall use a cellular or mobile telephone or other mobile electronic device, whether hands-free or not, while driving a motor vehicle in motion or temporarily stopped in traffic upon any way, except to report an emergency to the enhanced 911 system or any public safety agency. A person violating this paragraph shall be subject to the fines in paragraph III and license suspension or revocation under RSA 263:14, III.

Immediately my attention is drawn to “or temporarily halted in traffic for a traffic control device or other momentary delay” which means if you’re waiting 20 minutes in construction traffic, don’t even think about shooting a text to your boss that you’re running late.

It seems a bit extreme, like a zero tolerance policy that catches more innocent people than law breakers, but it looks like it’s at least coming from a good place- a desire to keep our roads safe. Whether or not it will actually accomplish this is another question.. for another day.

Anybody who has been following my blogs or knows me in person knows that my gut instinct is to test the limits and see just how fairly the laws are applied. More importantly still, how close to the letter these laws are enforced.

Which brings me to my test: Smart Watches: can we use a smart watch, which is hands-free, to send/receive texts, initiate and take phone calls, start and use navigation, and play music?

The devices banned from use are defined as “any hand-held mobile electronic device capable of providing voice or data communication, including but not limited to: reading, composing, viewing, or posting any electronic message; or initiating, receiving, or conducting a conversation; or initiating a command or request to access the Internet; or inputting information into a global positioning system or navigation device; or manually typing data into any other portable electronic device.”

Anybody who took a third grade English class in one of our fine New Hampshire schools should be cringing at this point. Let’s see if we can break down this disaster of a sentence.

No person [who qualifies as driving] shall use any (hand-held mobile electronic device)  [which is] capable of providing voice or data communication.

Following this we have a list of actions

  • reading, composing, viewing, or posting any electronic message;
  • initiating, receiving, or conducting a conversation;
  • initiating a command or request to access the Internet;
  • inputting information into a global positioning system or navigation device;
  • manually typing data into any other portable electronic device.

What do these actions apply to? I’m really wracking my brain trying to figure that out. Let’s simplify this sentence.

Nobody shall use a phone capable of  communication, including action one, two or three.

Goodness this is awful language.

Nobody shall use a phone with any of these following capabilities: action one, two, or three.

Still doesn’t make sense. “manually typing” isn’t a a capability of a phone, it’s an action taken on a phone. Let’s try again:

Nobody shall use an electronic device which is capable of providing voice or data communication in any of, but not limited to, the following ways: a, b, c..

Ok, so why did we spend all that time trying to parse this?

Because it’s important to note exactly how these words apply to each other. As it stands, the object that cannot be used is a “hand-held mobile electronic device” which is “capable of providing voice or data communication”. The manners in which it can’t be used as explicitly stated were extraneous because all use is banned. It’s almost as though they wanted to make sure the wording was unclear. None of the qualifiers in that sentence applied to the device itself, so the only workable qualifications are a device that is meant to be held, that can communicate via data or voice.

They explicitly allow bluetooth devices so that’s a good start.

So where does that leave smart watches? Not in limbo, but squarely in the allowed column.

The google watch, which has voice commands, can take texts and reply via voice, can start and end phone calls (routed through a bluetooth headset/speaker phone), and can provide turn-by-turn navigation appears to fail the qualification test of “hand-held” because it is not meant to be held, but instead strapped to your wrist.

And the best part is- they even make sure to specify that it’s okay to use your hand to initiate actions on your hands-free device!

Ironically, if you were to read this and interpret this as letter-of-the-law, it actually contains a loophole that allows you to focus your attention and manually type/text into a device provided it isn’t hand-held. Of course that would be distracted driving, and you could be pulled over for that. But then, why did we need this law in the first place?

Nevertheless, this looks like good news for smartwatch wearers. Will this be enforced as I’ve just interpreted it? That’s for us to find out come July. I’ll be curious to see the first cases hit the courts after this grammar-disaster of a bill takes effect.