A bill introduced Tuesday in the Vermont House of Representatives would increase the penalties for texting while driving and other forms of distracted driving, and leave violators on the hook for $500 for a first offense.
After the bill was introduced, it was referred to the House Committee on Transportation.
Rep. Butch Shaw, R-Pittsford, co-sponsored the bill.
“I continue to see people in the street driving while using their cellphones, or actually texting, so my purpose is to keep the conversation open on this problem, which doesn’t appear to be going away by legislation. We need to figure this out, because we continue to hear from the folks at the Department of Public Safety about car crashes being caused by inattentive driving,” he said.
If the bill becomes law as written, the civil penalty for using a portable electronic device while driving would increase to $500 and five points on the offender’s driving record.
Currently, the penalty for a first violation is a minimum of $100 and a maximum of $200, while the penalties for subsequent violations is a minimum of $250 and a maximum of $500. Points against an offender’s license is not part of the current law unless under specific circumstances.
For instance, an offender would be assigned four points for a first violation and five points for second or greater convictions if the offender is using the handheld device in a marked work zone or school zone.
The bill proposes to add an additional three points under those circumstances, in addition to the standard five-point penalty.
The bill includes a specific section on texting while driving but those penalties are the same $500 fine and five points as using a handheld device, and include the enhanced points if the violation is in a work or school zone.
The proposed changes would also have an impact on those who are issued junior driver’s license. Someone younger than 18 who is texting or using a handheld device while driving would not be fined but would receive five points on his or her record.
“A learner’s permit or junior operator’s license shall contain an admonition that it is recallable and that the later procurement of an operator’s license is conditional on the establishment of a record which is satisfactory to the commissioner and showing compliance with the motor-vehicle laws of this and other states,” the bill said.
The bill proposes a minor would lose his or her learner’s permit for 30 days for getting three points and 90 days for getting six points.
Shaw said he supported the bill because it would create “serious penalties” for people who use handheld devices while driving.
“In my opinion, we need to get a hold of this problem and keep people from getting hurt while they’re driving because they’re not paying attention,” he said.
Shaw said the sections of the bill affecting junior driver’s licenses were important because they would get young Vermonters into the habit of avoiding distracted driving. He used the example of seat belts, which he said most young people accepted as part of driving.
Calls left for several legislators who sponsored or co-sponsored the bill were not returned on Friday.
Texting while driving has been illegal in Vermont since 2010, after then-Gov. James Douglas signed a bill at Montpelier High School.
During the signing event, students were asked to drive a golf cart through a course lined with traffic cones. The students went through the course once and then drove the course again while texting.
One legislator was asked to try the same exercise because of his background.
Then-Sen. Phil Scott, a Washington County Republican, was asked to participate because of his experience as a professional race car driver.
Scott, now Vermont’s governor, said he did awful while driving the course.
“I don’t see this measure as punitive as much as educational. I believe that once people are aware of how much of a problem this is, they stop,” Scott said in 2010.