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Who taught YOU to drive? Breaking a few of New Hampshire’s rules

By Peter DeMarco
Globe Correspondent / January 19, 2012
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It’s sort of amazing that New Hampshire doesn’t require adults to wear seat belts, given the overwhelming data on how they reduce injuries and fatalities. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, seat belts reduce the risk of death in a car accident by 45 percent, and the risk of serious injury by 50 percent, for those sitting up front.

Want to know what else is amazing? Even without a seat belt law, New Hampshire drivers are buckling up at a higher rate than Massachusetts residents.

New Hampshire had ranked last in the country in seat belt use in 2010, with 72.2 percent of people buckling up, according to federal statistics. But Massachusetts wasn’t much better, with just 73.7 percent of people wearing belts.

When the federal agency releases its figures for last year, however, New Hampshire’s new rate will be 75 percent, said Peter Thomson, longtime coordinator of the New Hampshire Highway Safety Agency. With the Bay State’s figure dropping slightly last year to 73.2 percent, according to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, it means New Hampshire has leapfrogged past us.

Nearly everybody’s car makes those persistent beeping reminders to buckle up, so it must be more than that.

How did this happen?

“We’re doing it even without the law,’’ Thomson said. “We at the agency, and a lot of other groups tied in with us, do a lot of educational work. We start with programs way back in the first grade. It’s really caught on.’’

Our northern neighbors certainly take great pride in their state motto, “Live Free or Die.’’ It’s printed on every automobile registration plate, and permeates the state’s driving rules: Motorcycle riders don’t need helmets; auto insurance is optional; no one pays a motor vehicle excise tax bill.

But upon closer inspection, Massachusetts and New Hampshire drivers are a lot more alike than you’d think. Seat belt use is Exhibit A, but did you also know that at least 90 percent of New Hampshire drivers carry car insurance, just like we do? Or that New Hampshire drivers pay almost as much to register their cars as we pay in excise taxes? Or that New Hampshire’s no-texting-while-driving law is more than five years older than ours?

It’s true that New Hampshire motorcyclists fiercely defend their right to ride without wearing a helmet. But even on that front, statistics show motorcycle-related fatalities dropped by 50 percent last year, from 28 to 14, a sign that more bikers may be choosing to don headgear.

“What I’ve seen over the last 10 years of living here is that you have a lot of Massachusetts transplants, so you now have this mixed culture,’’ said Brett Bogart, a former Massachusetts driving instructor and West Newbury native who moved to New Hampshire a decade ago.

“You have people trying to transition to this ‘Live Free or Die’ mentality, along with old-timers who are seeing their communities change to a more mandated feel. I think it carries over into driving. I wouldn’t be surprised if the seat belt law was overturned in five or 10 years.’’

So let’s put to rest some of New Hampshire’s biggest driving myths.

Seat belts

While it’s true that New Hampshire is the only state where adults don’t need to wear seat belts, since 2000 everyone under age 18 has been required to buckle up, Thomson said. The habit appears to be carrying into adulthood, with last year’s 75 percent mark representing a record high, he said.

“When I started my job in 1992, the usage rate was 49.7 percent. It just kind of continues upward,’’ Thomson said.

With usage up, the number of accident fatalities statewide hit a 51-year low last year, he added.

Insurance

I know how much I spend on car insurance, so the option of going without it sounds tempting. But most New Hampshire drivers actually have no choice in the matter.

Some residents voluntarily buy coverage to protect themselves and their families, said retired insurance agent David Mason, who owned agencies in each state, Mason & Mason Insurance in Whitman, Mass., and M & M Insurance in North Conway, N.H. But by far, that’s not the only reason.

For starters, without insurance, New Hampshire motorists can’t drive out of state.

“New Hampshire is the only state in New England that doesn’t have compulsory auto insurance,’’ he said. “Every other state requires it, so without it, you could be stopped at the border. You don’t have to have car insurance in New Hampshire, but from a practical standpoint you can’t go anywhere.’’

Anyone who’s been convicted of drunken driving in New Hampshire must get insurance before they can drive again, as does any driver found at fault in a car accident, Mason said.

If you take out a loan to pay for your car, your bank will require you to have insurance.

“They’re not going to loan you the money if it’s uninsured,‘ Mason said. “If the car gets wrecked, how are they going to get paid?

“Even if the car owner wants to ‘Live Free or Die,’ the bank’s not going to let them do that.’’

Both the New Hampshire Insurance Department and the Insurance Research Council, a nonprofit group supported by the industry, say approximately 90 percent of New Hampshire motorists carry coverage.

Mason thinks the figure is even higher - perhaps 99 percent. “I’ve lived here in excess of 20 years,’’ he said, “and I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t have it.’’

Excise tax

We all know you can buy a car in New Hampshire without paying a sales tax. But the state’s tax-free attitude applies to motor vehicle excise fees as well: There aren’t any.

So it’s a lot cheaper for New Hampshire residents to put a car on the road, right?

Once again, looks can be deceiving. While New Hampshire drivers get out of paying excise taxes, they often pay substantially higher registration fees, both to the state and their local municipality.

I asked Nancy Naples, vehicle registration supervisor for Nashua (New Hampshire residents register their cars through their local city or town halls), what it would cost me to register my car if I lived in her community. According to her calculations, I would have paid $420 for the first 12 months of ownership.

I paid $50 to the state to register my car in Massachusetts, plus another $515 in local excise taxes, so it’s definitely cheaper to operate in New Hampshire, though the margin isn’t as wide as you might have expected.

And it begins to narrow after the first year, because of changes in fee structures. As my vehicle gets older, my costs would become virtually equal regardless of where I lived. After five years, I’d be paying $115 to register my vehicle in New Hampshire, compared with a combined $114 in registration fees and excise taxes in Massachusetts.

Sounds like a wash to me.

Peter DeMarco lives in Somerville and can be reached at demarco@globe.com. He also updates a Facebook page, “WhotaughtYOUtodrive?’’

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