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Hands-Free or Hang Up: Vermont Lawmakers Weigh Vehicle Cell Phone Restrictions

In White River Junction, Vt., on Feb. 17, 2014, a driver talks on his cell phone while waiting for a traffic light to turn green.
Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

In White River Junction, Vt., on Feb. 17, 2014, a driver talks on his cell phone while waiting for a traffic light to turn green. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

White River Junction — State senators from the Upper Valley on Monday said they want to examine a bill to ban hand-held devices while driving but that it may well wind up on the governor’s desk.

If it becomes law, Vermont would join 12 other states, including New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, that have hands-free electronic device restrictions in place. Under current law in the Green Mountain State, texting while driving is prohibited, and drivers under 18 also aren’t allowed to use a cell phone while behind the wheel.

Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, D-Quechee, said the bill, which passed the House last week with little opposition, will likely go before the Senate Transportation and Judiciary committees, and if it wins backing there, will reach the Senate floor around Town Meeting week.

“I think it has a good shot in the Senate,” Campbell, who backs the bill, said. “I think most people support this bill.”

Senate Republican Leader Joe Benning, a Lyndonville Republican whose district includes several towns in the Bradford area, said he has sympathy for the proposal, as he is a motorcycle rider, but wants to see some changes in the House bill.

Benning said he has noticed an increase in the number of drivers “zoning out” on their cell phones.

“It is disturbing,” Benning said, adding tighter parameters need to be set in order to crack down on inattentive drivers. “When you are riding a motorcycle, you are exposed.”

Benning was worried, though, that the House bill went “too far” and may inhibit individuals who use citizens band or other handheld radios from communicating.

“I don’t want to see them wrapped up in the same bill,” he said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, has gone on record saying he is wary of the idea to ban hand-held devices completely, but hasn’t directly said he would veto it.

“I have had private conversations with the governor asking him to support it, but he has this view that we shouldn’t be legislating this,” Campbell said. “There is always a chance where he may not veto it, and he may let it become law without his signature.”

Campbell also noted that Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Sears, a Bennington Democrat, “isn’t a fan” of the legislation.

Under the House bill, drivers would no longer be able to raise a cell phone to their ear and carry on a conversation, or scroll through their personal music players to change a song.

The proposed legislation would prohibit drivers from operating hand-held electronic devices while the vehicle is in motion.

Instead, drivers would have to mount the device, onto the dashboard for example, and would only be allowed to press one button to engage or disengage a call, or to activate a hands-free feature (such as Apple’s Siri function) on the phone, which would allow a driver to operate the phone by talking to the device.

Drivers would be able to wear a headset or use a wireless Bluetooth feature in the vehicle to carry on a conversation or to change to a different tune, but the days of physically holding the device would be no more if the House bill becomes law.

A provision under the bill provides an exception for drivers needing to communicate with law enforcement or emergency service personnel, and communications among public safety officials.

Under the House bill, drivers could be fined between $100 and $200 for a first offense, plus 2 points on their driving record, and then face up to a $500 fine and 5 points for subsequent violations.

T he bid to curtail distracted driving won an emotional boost during House floor debate from state Rep. Mark Huntley, a Cavendish Democrat whose district includes Weathersfield.

Huntley said he held up a cell phone during debate and said that type of device was “the primary cause” of his 17-year-old son’s death in 2011.

Spencer Huntley died when the Subaru he was driving collided with a tractor trailer in Cavendish on Route 103.

Although Huntley said there was never an official finding of the cause of the crash, he said a smart phone “was the reason he was killed. It was in his hand when he crashed.

“It was all about music for Spencer, and he was changing songs,” Huntley said.

Huntley was one of 130 lawmakers to vote in favor of the preliminary bill on Thursday. Eleven legislators voted against the bill, which later had two amendments added to it, making it more desirable.

Huntley said he feels tighter restrictions could save lives. Others concur.

“I fully support it. ... I have seen so many people fly by me on a plow truck in the middle of a snow storm on their phone or iPod and they are paying absolutely no attention,” Ian Cheney, a plow truck driver from Quechee, said on Monday while running an errand at a gas station in White River Junction. “There could be three inches of snow on the roads; it doesn’t matter, people are just not paying attention.”

Though in favor of the proposal, Elizabeth Heselton, of Hartland, said enforcement will be difficult and each driver is responsible for obeying the rules.

“It’s kind of like the helmet law, it’s up to the individual,” Heselton said while pumping gas into her car.

But if it saves lives, “I’m for it.”

Distracted driving was also a concern last year along the Route 4 corridor between Hartford and Woodstock, the site of several fatal accidents. Campbell, who travels Route 4 every day, said recent measures to make the road safer, such as adding rumble strips, have helped decrease the chances for traffic accidents.

He said cracking down on cell phone and other hand-held devices will only help make Route 4 and other windy Vermont roads safer for vehicular traffic.

“If a person is distracted whether it be from talking on the telephone or texting or whatever, then I think they have a greater chance of getting into an accident,” Campbell said. “You can’t afford to not be paying attention.”

State Sen. Mark MacDonald, a Randolph-area Democrat, said he would be in favor of tighter limitations, and would vote in favor of the bill if it gained the support of the Transportation committee.

“I was alarmed at some of the statics with the number of people that say they dial numbers or write text messages while they are driving,” MacDonald said. “I think we are gradually appreciating the dangers of more and more technologies in our cars which distract us from paying attention.”

Some of the legislators, themselves, acknowledged using cell phones while driving, and, in fact, MacDonald said he had missed a turn as he talked with a reporter about the bill.

In the House floor debate, some accommodations for technology were made.

State Rep. Teo Zagar, D-Barnard, made an amendment Friday that allowed drivers the “one button rule,” which says drivers have the ability to push a button to activate hands-free functions, for example.

Without the amendment, drivers would have had to pull over to activate or deactivate a device.

The other amendment included in the House bill allows exceptions for farm truck or tractor drivers.

Across the Connecticut River, New Hampshire has less strict parameters on cell phone use while operating a motor vehicle.

Drivers in the Granite State are banned from texting while driving, much like Vermont drivers are, but no other bans have been proposed. As of Jan. 1, Vermont instituted a hand-held device ban in work zones.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.