Drivers who use handheld devices while they are behind the wheel can soon expect steeper penalties in the state of Vermont.

Beginning Jan. 1, law enforcement officials are expanding their efforts to put the brakes on texting and driving by issuing traffic tickets with steep penalties of five points on a violator's driver's license - up from two points previously, and increased fines.

The use of other hand-held devices, including MP3 players and GPS devices, will be banned in work zones and could carry fines as high as $479 for a second offense.

"Hopefully the threat of higher points and higher fines will deter people from going out there and putting themselves and others in danger," said Lt. Lloyd Dean of the Bennington Police Department.

BPD have issued eight traffic violations in 2013, to Vermont motorists for texting while driving.

"Many teenagers live by their phones - they text a thousand times a day, they do everything by texting so therefore they're exposed to this danger much earlier than they are to drugs and alcohol," said Dean.

For drivers ages 15-19 years old involved in fatal crashes, 21 percent of the distracted drivers were distracted by the use of cellphones, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"Hopefully these kids learn by example, but the parents have to lead by example," said Dean. "When you're too preoccupied with the texting it's very easy to swerve and become involved in an accident."

In Vermont there is no traffic law against talking on your cellphone while driving, but local resident, artist and teacher, Nina Karp believes that any form of distracted driving should have no place on Vermont roadways.

"Any device that continually distracts a driver is a danger," said Karp, of North Bennington. "I have seen a lot of near-misses and a level of carelessness displayed when people drive that is really troubling."

Karp has not been involved in a texting-related accident but said her level of stress as a defensive driver has been raised in recent years. "I'm constantly having to be aware of dangerous and careless driving," she said, noting that stoplights are one of the places where the cause for concern is heightened.

"I can see them in their rearview mirror and they're creeping up until they're inches away from my bumper," said Karp, of texting as a distraction. "When they notice, their eyes flicker up and they see that traffic is moving again but they've missed everything that has been going on. It's as though they think their vehicles are driving on automatic. It's very frightening."

Each day in the United States, more than 1,060 people are injured in crashes that reportedly involve a distracted driver, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Texting while driving is especially dangerous says the CDC, because it combines the three types of distractions which drivers face, including visual, manual and cognitive.

"People do it with impunity and should realize this is illegal," said Karp, who noted she doesn't use any handheld devices while driving, and only carries a cellphone when traveling. "You aren't present in the same way when your mind is talking to someone in a different location," said Karp. "It's different when there is someone else in the same car - that person is there in that physical space with you and you have another pair of eyes on the road."

Of other states that have implemented tougher restrictions on texting while driving, including New York which has created "Text Stops," on the NYS Thruway and other highways, Karp said she thinks a similar strategy would benefit Ve r m o n t .

"I think a combination of strongly-worded signs and heightened patrols would help people understand the dangers," she said, noting that while many things are dangerous to multitask while driving including lighting a cigarette or drinking coffee, none are as continually distracting as text-messaging.

"New York State Police are activating unmarked SUVs to crack down on this issue," said Dean. "We don't have that luxury here in Bennington, but we are taking steps to raise awareness about the dangers associated with texting while driving and get it to stop."

For more information visit www.distraction.gov; www.cdc.gov and www.itcanwait.com.

Contact Khynna at kkuprian@benningtonbanner.com and follow her on Twitter @khynnakat.