Bill banning cellphone use while driving stalls out in Vermont


MONTPELIER -- More often than not, bills run into trouble in the Vermont Legislature for being too broad, but one measure is headed for the scrap heap this session for perhaps being too narrow.

A proposal to ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving is all but dead in the Senate after it failed to emerge from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Committee chairman Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said the House version, which won strong bipartisan support, doesn't go far enough to address the overall issue of distracted driving. "Laws don't necessarily change behavior," he said.

"A number of us, including myself, have deep concerns about the bill and about whether it will accomplish what supporters think it will," Sears said Friday.

The measure requires drivers to use hands-free devices, such as Bluetooth, for cellphones while driving. The legislation originated as an attempt to help police enforce a similar ban on texting while driving. Law enforcement officials have testified that it is difficult to enforce the texting ban because suspects simply say they were dialing the phone.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, in its only hearing on the bill, H.62, focused heavily on other forms of distracted driving, such as applying makeup or reading. Sears expressed interest in calling in witnesses from other states to hear their experiences with distracted driving but no new hearings were scheduled.

Sears said his committee was tied up with other bills that took longer, including a fee bill that contained a controversial provision on gun storage, a bill on driving under the influence of drugs and others.

"The only one that really messed up my schedule was the fee bill," Sears said. "That means certain bills aren't going to make it, not just cellphones."

Sears said that after the initial hearing in which the committee questioned the wisdom of pursuing distracted driving in a piecemeal fashion, it became clear that the bill as written lacked consensus.

"I'm not even sure I have the votes in this committee," he said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has opposed the bill, saying he, too, feels the entire spectrum of distracted driving should be discussed. Sears said there was no pressure from the administration to shelve H.62

"The governor and I often agree on things," Sears said. "I've been asked, 'Has he put undue pressure on you?' and I would say no. In some ways I think his opposition galvanized the supporters."

Sen. Richard Mazza, D-Chittenden/Grand Isle, has opposed the concept of a ban in the past but changed his view when it came to the Senate Transportation Committee, which Mazza chairs.

Mazza told WDEV's "The Mark Johnson Show" this month that he thought the bill was needed and would have support in the full Senate.

Personal disappointment

H.62, breezed through the House on a 130-11 vote in February.

Rep. Tom Koch, R/D-Barre Town, said on the House floor that he, too, had changed his view on banning hand-held cellphone use.

"These laws do change behavior," he said. "I always said that when it becomes illegal, I'll stop doing it."

During the House vote, Rep. Mark Huntley, D-Cavendish, shared the story of his teenaged son, Spencer, who he said was killed in an accident while attempting to change songs on his iPod while driving.

Huntley, a first-term lawmaker, said he was disappointed that the bill won't face an up-or-down vote in the Senate.

"I feel like they've dropped the ball, completely," Huntley said.

"(The House vote was) one of the strongest votes this year," Huntley said. "I understand the politics, but this has to happen, because the second you take the foot off the brake, no pun intended, it dies along with everything else and then you've done nothing to fix highway safety. Once again you let politics be the driver as opposed to doing the responsible and correct, and maybe harder thing to do."

Huntley said he didn't run for office on the issue of a cellphone ban and plans to seek re-election this fall.

"Is this a foundation for me running again?" he said. "It certainly will be a brick."


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