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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Hand Held Cell Phone Ban For Drivers Is Stalled At Statehouse

VPR/Angela Evancie

Two key Senate committees have fundamental differences about the scope of a bill that would ban cell phone use while driving. Those differences could derail the legislation for the session.

Earlier this year, the House overwhelmingly supported legislation that prohibits drivers from using hand-held phones and other electronic devices.

One of the primary goals of the legislation is to give law enforcement officials a new tool to crack down on drivers who text while operating a car.

It’s now illegal for people of any age to text and drive. But police say it’s very difficult to enforce the law because it’s not clear if a driver is texting or using their cell phone or a portable music player.

"It is going to be very confusing, and what we will get is nothing." Senate Transportation chairman Dick Mazza on a plan to expand the bill banning hand held cell phones to include all forms of distracted driving.

The Senate Transportation committee gave its support to the House plan and the bill was sent to the Senate Judiciary committee. The chairman of that panel, Bennington Senator Dick Sears, says the scope of the bill is too narrow.

He wants police to be able to pull over a driver for any type of distraction that causes the person to “drive in an unsafe manner.” Sears says it could be reaching for a bag in the back seat or combing your hair.

“I think my concern is regarding more than just cell phones,” said Sears. “It’s distracted driving. I think that’s the danger and the more I’ve talked to people about it out in the streets, not in the building, it’s their concern as well.”

Sears says he hasn’t seen any evidence that a cell phone ban will be effective.

“The testimony from the Department of Public Safety was that New York and California haven’t reduced accidents with cell phone bans,” said Sears. “I do think that when you think about the distracted driver that’s the problem we’re trying to get at.”

Sears says he’s talking to various legislative leaders to assess support for his approach on distracted drivers. One person who has a very strong opinion is Transportation Committee Chairman Dick Mazza. He doesn’t like it at all.

“It’s very difficult. It would not pass. It muddies the waters and I just think it’s a distraction from the real issue,” said Mazza. “The real issue is texting and hand-held phones or devices, and I just think if you broaden that it’s going to muddy it enough, it’s going to be very confusing, and what we will get is nothing.”

Last year, Mazza opposed the hand-held cell phone ban but he changed his mind after talking with law enforcement officials.

"They have no teeth in banning texting as it stands and I just want to make them compatible and that’s where they belong together and anything outside of that it’s going to deserve a lot of discussion in another year,” he said.

With about a month remaining in this year’s session, it’s not clear how the Senate committees will resolve their differences over this bill.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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