Vt. advances ban on drivers phoning
By Neal P. Goswami
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | February 01,2014
MONTPELIER — The House Judiciary Committee advanced legislation Friday banning the use of cellphones and other handheld devices while driving.
The committee approved the bill unanimously after hearing from law enforcement officers supporting a ban. The committee has advanced similar bills at least twice before, but they fizzled out without becoming law. The state already prohibits texting by drivers.
Under the bill, using a phone or other device while behind the wheel would be allowed only with the use of a hands-free feature. Twelve states already have such laws.
A first offense would carry a fine of $100 to $200. A second and all subsequent offenses within a two-year period would carry a fine of $250 to $500.
Scott Tucker, a captain with the Rutland City Police Department and a representative of the Vermont Police Association, said law enforcement officers support the bill and believe that phone calls should be banned.
“In general, I would say that law enforcement can support this bill,” he said. “This is really nothing more than an extension, I think, and a normal, healthy extension, I think.”
Still, Tucker said enforcement can be difficult so the legislation would be “primarily an awareness bill.”
Tucker, along with Montpelier Police Chief Anthony Facos, asked lawmakers to include an exemption in the bill for law enforcement officers who need to use their phones while driving in the course of their official duties.
Chris Maley, president of the Vermont Association for Justice, also urged lawmakers to ban cellphone use while driving. He said the legislation will help alter behavior behind the wheel.
According to Maley, who speaks at schools about the issue, teenagers are learning bad habits from their parents who answer emails and text while driving. However, teens are using cellphones while driving in worse ways, he said.
“They get the selfies going while they’re driving,” Maley said. “They do all this stuff that’s just bizarre and nuts.”
Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn said his department has not taken a stance on the issue, but he noted Gov. Peter Shumlin’s opposition to a ban. Flynn said a study conducted in California after it passed a cellphone ban in 2008 showed no notable change in crashes.
Committee Chairman William Lippert, a Hinesburg Democrat, said the panel is aware of Shumlin’s position but believes the bill will enhance highway safety.
Lippert said lawmakers won’t be able to eliminate all distractions through legislation but that ending cellphone use while driving is an appropriate place to start and is achievable.
“We’re not going to achieve perfection here. I don’t want us to wait until we have every possible permutation worked out,” he said. “This needs to be law.”
The bill’s prospects are unclear, given its past failures. Lippert said the committee will continue advancing the ban until it becomes law.
“Even if it stops, we’re going to keep making the statement that it needs to happen,” he said.
Shumlin spokeswoman Susan Allen declined to say if he would veto the bill if it reached his desk.
“As you know, the governor never comments on ‘what ifs,’” she said. “He hopes people refrain from using their handheld cellphones for calls while driving. That’s just good common sense, something the governor doesn’t think you can legislate. He has heard from both sides in the debate and is willing to look at the data as this discussion moves forward.”