Vermont bills address highway safety

| 2/26/2007

A bill in the Vermont House would prohibit drivers in the state from talking on hand-held cell phones while driving. The measure is one of several highway safety-related bills under consideration in the Legislature.

Drivers would be prohibited from using the devices while behind the wheel. Talking on a phone equipped with a "hands-free" accessory would still be permitted.

Sponsored by Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, the bill - S20 - would make it a secondary offense to drive while chatting, meaning a person would have to be pulled over for another violation, such as speeding, before they could be ticketed for talking on the phone.

Violators would face up to $100 fines. Emergency calls would be exempted.

A separate effort focuses on the cell phone habits of novice drivers.

Sponsored by Rep. Sue Minter, D-Waterbury, the bill - H85 - would prohibit cell phone use for drivers possessing learner's permits or junior operator's licenses.

Currently, about a dozen states forbid young drivers from using phones while behind the wheel.

Only Connecticut, New York and New Jersey ban all drivers from using hand-held phones. In 2008, California is slated to implement its own rule that will prohibit all drivers from talking on hand-held phones while driving.

However, more studies show that hands-free and hand-held phones are equally distracting. Opponents of cell phone restrictions also say that talking on cell phones is no more distracting than eating, drinking or changing radio stations while driving.

In fact, research by the University of North Carolina determined that cell-phone use ranked eighth in terms of distraction, The Patriot-News reported.

With that in mind, Rep. Thomas Koch, R-Barre, has introduced a bill that would bar drivers from doing just about anything other than steering the vehicle.

The bill - H126 - would prohibit such activities as eating, drinking, smoking, reading, writing, playing a musical instrument and talking on the phone while driving. Violators would face $600 fines.

The cell-phone restriction bill isn't the only highway safety issue drawing consideration in the state. Another effort offered by Ayer addresses whether or not to adopt a primary law for seat-belt enforcement.

Currently, police in the state can issue seat-belt citations to drivers only after stopping a vehicle for another traffic violation, such as speeding. The bill - S19 - would permit police to pull over drivers who are not buckled up.

Gov. James Douglas is opposed to the proposed rule change. He would prefer to educate the public about the dangers of not wearing a seat belt.

The state does have an economic incentive to adopt the stricter rule. Vermont would be line for a one-time $3.7 million payment from the federal government, the Rutland Herald reported.

The 2005 federal Highway Bill gives any state that adopts tougher seat-belt rules or achieves a belt usage rate of 85 percent one-time grant money equal to 500 percent of the highway funding they received in 2003.

Vermont has a seat-belt usage rate of 84.7 percent.

One other safety-related bill would require drivers to flip on their headlights when precipitation is flying.

Sponsored by Rep. Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock, the bill would require lights to be on whenever visibility is limited. The measure - H125 - defines that as whenever "the windshield wipers are in use as a result of rain, sleet, snow, hail, fog, or other unfavorable atmospheric condition."

Vermont law already requires drivers to have their headlights on from one-half hour past sunset to one-half hour before sunrise.

The bills are in committee.

- By Keith Goble, state legislative editor