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August 25. 2013 10:49PM

Motorists urged to be aware as school year begins


Police investigate the scene of a serious accident on Portsmouth Avenue in Exeter in December involving a Volkswagen Jetta that struck a van and then hit the front of a school bus. (Jason Schreiber/Union Leader Correspondent)

State Safety Commissioner John J. Barthelmes urged motorists to pay extra attention to their driving with the opening of school this week.

The warning followed an "unexpected upsurge" in school bus collisions last spring, Barthelmes said in a statement released last week. In nearly every case, the collision was the fault of the motorist, not the school bus driver, he said. Many involved rear-end collisions, he said.

"Nobody knows for sure how some motorists are missing large yellow buses with flashing red lights and stop arms, but it is happening," the commissioner said.

"One thing for sure is the large numbers of motorists who take the chance of engrossing themselves in text messaging or a cell phone conversation while their vehicle is in motion," he added.

Distracted driving — whether it be taking your hands off the controls or your eyes of the road — kills more than nine people a day in the United States and injures more than 400,000 people a year, Barthelmes said, citing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration research.

While the most common instances of distracted driving involve cell phone use and texting, contributing actions include eating, disciplining children, programming a GPS device, shaving and applying makeup, he said.

A 2011 National Risky Behavior Study revealed nearly half of all polled high school students who have drivers licenses texted or emailed while driving, Barthelmes said.Under New Hampshire law, anyone operating a motor vehicle while texting or using two hands to operate an electronic or telecommunications device is guilty of a violation and can be fined up to $100. Anyone who drives in a negligent manner that endangers or is likely to endanger a person or property can be fined up to $500 for a first offense and up to $1,000 for subsequent offenses. This can include inattentive driving while using a cell phone.Barthelmes urged motorists to be aware of students getting on and off school buses, and walking or biking to school, and stressed the importance of reducing speeds in school zones.

He also urged parents to speak to their children about texting and driving.

Major cell phone companies have started a "Don't text and Drive — it can wait — No text is worth the risk" national campaign. See itcanwait.com for more information.

kmarchocki@unionleader.com


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