Governor will sign ban on using hand-held cell phones while driving


Vermonters will no longer be able to talk on hand-held cellphones while driving if the Senate agrees with a compromise reached Wednesday.

House members voted 129-6 to accept a conference committee agreement on S.314, a department of motor vehicles bill that included the ban.

The Senate is expected to vote on the measure Thursday, where it is likely to pass, several lawmakers said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has opposed the bill from the beginning, now intends to sign it, a spokeswoman for the administration said Wednesday.

The governor now approves of the compromise version that eliminated points against a driver's license for a first offense of driving while using a hand-held cellphone. Hands-free use is permitted under the law. A first violation for driving while using a hand-held device carries a fine of $100 to $200 but no points. The penalty for texting while driving still carries the fine and two points against a driver's license. Accumulation of 10 or more points in a two-year period results in automatic license suspension.

"Gov. Shumlin wanted to ensure the bill made sense for Vermont, wouldn't increase Vermonters' insurance rates, or harm their driving records," aide Susan Allen said in a statement. "He appreciated the Legislature's willingness to compromise on this bill, and expects to sign it."

The law would take effect Oct. 1 and requires a public information campaign to inform motorists of the change. Vermont banned texting while driving in 2010 and police have complained that it is difficult to enforce because drivers who are stopped simply said they were calling, not texting.

The Department of Public Safety would launch an informational campaign by Aug. 1 or sooner under the bill. That could include public service announcements and roadside displays, lawmakers said.

The measure had broad support in the House but stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee and appeared dead until it was attached to the transportation bill.

House members were pleased that a compromise was reached.

"It's a great first step," said Rep. Patrick Brennan, R-Colchester, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. "Right now (texting) is a feel-good bill that can't really be enforced this bill kind of completes the circle. Law enforcement will have no issues making a stop based on somebody holding a phone up to their ear. I think the bill will change driving habits and save lives."

Debate over the bill caused a rift between Democratic Sens. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who opposed it, and Dick Mazza, D-Chittenden/Grand Isle, who supported it. Both were members of the conference committee that rescued the bill and said there were no hard feelings.

"We've been friends for 22 years and we're still friends," Sears said. Both men said they have hands-free devices in their own cars.

Sears said Wednesday he still opposes the bill and did not sign the conference committee's report.

According to the Associated Press, the New Hampshire Legislature also passed a ban on hand-held cellphone use while driving Wednesday, forwarding it to Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, who has not said whether she will sign it.

Twelve other states prohibit drivers from using hand-held cellphones and 41 states ban text messaging, according to the Governor's Highway Safety Council.


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