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Vermont Drivers Face Stricter Cellphone Rules Starting Oct. 1

Sunday, September 21, 2014
White River Junction — Come Oct. 1, drivers in Vermont who are caught holding a cellphone to their ear could face a fine that is bigger than their monthly phone bill.

And next summer, similar rules will apply to drivers in New Hampshire, as well.

That’s because both states have passed new laws mandating that drivers have only “hands-free use” of portable electronic devices while operating a motor vehicle. The goal is to to cut down on distracted driving and improve highway safety .

“In life today, we all like to multi-task, but we really have to re-evaluate the importance of driving a car,” said Glen Button, the director of enforcement and safety for the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles.

At the beginning of next month, drivers in Vermont must put their cellphones and other electronic devices into a “cradle or otherwise securely mounted” position — which could include within a pocket — inside the vehicle before placing a call, according to the new Vermont law.

Once the phone is secure, drivers must activate a hands-free setting within the device or vehicle, or purchase a device that allows for hands-free calling.

Setting a phone on the passenger seat and using the speaker-phone setting is not allowed.

“We want to make sure it isn’t ... in a position where it is going to be moving about, which would be distracting to drivers,” Button said.

Though some drivers last week said they were aware of the pending change to the law, they said they hadn’t purchased the equipment or gone through the process of enabling hands-free calling in their vehicles.

“I have to spend money out of my pocket in order to do it,” Troy Rowell, of Hartland-based Rowell’s Property Maintenance, said .

Despite some inconveniences, Rowell said, he will comply with the law “as much as I can.”

“I think it is a good idea,” Rowell said.

He wasn’t alone.

“If you are looking down at your phone, you aren’t looking at the road,” White River Junction resident Lance Goodwin said . “There have been way too many accidents. I don’t know the statistics, but it doesn’t sound good.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is reporting that each day in the United States at least nine people are killed in crashes reportedly involving distracted drivers.

Talking on a cellphone while driving makes you four times more likely to crash, according to the National Safety Council.

“Distracted driving has been described as an epidemic,” Button said. “This is a step in the right direction.”

Enforcing the Law

In their latest session, Vermont lawmakers reworked the language of an existing law that prohibits the use of handheld devices in work zones, and expanded it to cover all highways in the state.

Vermont will join 12 other states, including Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, that already have hands-free requirements in place.

According to the new law, which takes place Oct. 1, holding a device in your hand while driving is prohibited on all Vermont roadways. Drivers must employ an internal feature or add an attachment to comply with the “hands-free use” component of the law.

Drivers are allowed to touch their phone to activate or deactivate the device, which can launch it into hands-free capability, while driving, so long as the device is mounted.

Drivers are also able to draw the phone to their ear to communicate with law enforcement in emergency circumstances only.

Anyone who is caught in violation of the law will be subject to a fine of $100 to $200 for a first offense, and $250 to $500 for subsequent offenses within a two-year period. No points will be added onto an individual’s driving record, though they can be assessed for using a handheld device in a work zone .

Under laws already in place, drivers under the age of 18 can’t use an electronic device while operating a vehicle. Texting while driving is illegal for all.

Though an overwhelming majority of lawmakers in the House and Senate supported the hand-held device ban bill, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, opposed the legislation.

“I felt the problem is distracted driving and this law did not address that problem,” Sears said in an email. “It is now the law despite my opposition and I will obey it and hope others do as well.”

In New Hampshire, a similar law that bans electronic device use while driving will take effect on July 1, 2015.

Vermont State Police Captain Ray Keefe said there will be a “learning curve” come Oct. 1 while drivers change their habits.

He said troopers will primarily provide education and issue written warnings to drivers in violation of the law during the first few weeks of the rollout.

“After that, it will be enforcement,” Keefe said.

Keefe, along with some local police chiefs, said there aren’t any specific protocols in place to enforce the new law.

“It is just more of a heightened awareness while the officers are out on patrol,” said Hartford Police Chief Brad Vail.

Earlier this month, Norwich Police Chief Doug Robinson alerted residents in his town of the new law with a post on the Listserve. Robinson said he stood near Marion Cross School, helping young students cross Main Street before and after school, and was pleased to see full compliance of seat belt laws. But he did raise concerns about distracted driving.

“I did observe three drivers texting which each were given a very strong warning,” Robinson wrote. “I have also stood on Main Street with the new crossing guard ... During that time I have noticed dozens of drivers talking on their cellp hones as they drive by. I would like to remind ALL drivers of one of the changes to the law in Vermont.

“This law is for your safety as well as other drivers on the road, bicyclists and your children that are crossing the road,” Robinson added.

The state Agency of Transportation has spent roughly $30,000 to launch a public education campaign to inform drivers of the new law, said spokesman Erik Filkorn. The campaign, which was required to commence by Aug. 1, was mandated by the legislation and paid for by federal dollars handed down to the state.

With the money, Filkorn said the agency has run several media advertisements, updated its websites, printed posters and brochures and stripped messages across the electronic boards lining many Vermont roadways.

“You can’t drive on the interstate without driving by an electronic sign that is announcing it,” said state Rep. Kevin Christie, D-Hartford, who backed the new law.

Hands-Free Devices

There are several devices lining the shelves of electronic, retail and phone stores that will put devices into a hands-free mode.

The Agency of Transportation recommends on its website options for users who don’t have Bluetooth capabilities hardwired in their vehicles. Bluetooth is a wireless technology that enables devices to interconnect. Many vehicles come equipped with Bluetooth technology, so a driver can have hands-free device use without purchasing additional equipment.

For those individuals without it installed in their vehicle, the state suggests a few options:

∎  Wired headset: Drivers can comply with the law by purchasing a wired headset with a built-in microphone that plugs directly into the auxiliary jack on a cellphone. Individuals looking for an inexpensive option or those with non-Bluetooth-capable phones are encouraged to purchase a wired headset, which can range from $10 to $30.

∎  Bluetooth headset: Unlike the wired headset, the Bluetooth headset connects to a phone wirelessly. Bluetooth headsets come in many varieties, including a device that clips on your ear. Individuals must have a Bluetooth-capable phone to use this type of headset, which can range from $30 to $130.

∎  FM Transmitter: No device needs to be worn when using a transmitter. FM transmitters can plug into a car’s cigarette lighter and stream music or calls through a car’s speakers using radio frequencies. Individuals also must have Bluetooth-capable devices. The transmitters can range from $25 to $125.

∎  Portable speakerphone: A portable speakerphone can be purchased that clips to a vehicle’s visor, allowing the driver to make calls wirelessly through the device without the use of a radio frequency. Bluetooth-capable phones are a must to connect to the portable speaker, which can range from $25 to $80.

Another option?

The call can wait.



For information, go to http://highwaysafety.vermont.gov/phonesdown

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




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