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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 Unlikely To Pass

Legislation that bans drivers from using hand held electronic devices is in big trouble at the Statehouse. The legislation was promoted as a way to help law enforcement officials crack down on drivers who text while operating a car.

"To have it bog down over a few disagreements among a few people seems a little disheartening. It is a good bill." House Transportation Chairman Pat Brennan

That’s because when police see a driver with a hand held device, it’s not clear if the driver is texting, or talking on their cell phone, or making a selection from their portable music player.  

The ban on all hand held electronic devices was seen as a good way to deal with this enforcement problem.

The bill passed the House by an overwhelming margin and it received the unanimous support of the Senate Transportation committee. But along the way, it developed some powerful opponents. One was Governor Peter Shumlin.

“My experience has been that it’s very tough to legislate common sense and that when states try they usually don’t succeed,” said Shumlin. “I’m going to answer the phone when my daughter calls do you want to make me an outlaw?”

Another key opponent was Bennington senator Dick Sears. He’s the chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee. He wanted a ban on all kinds of distracted driving.

“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.”

Senate Transportation chairman Dick Mazza said Sears’ position effectively killed the bill for the year because there isn’t enough time to consider a sweeping ban on all types of distracted driving.

Sometimes late in the session, bills that are stalled in committee emerge as amendments to other bills but Mazza says that’s not going to happen with this bill.

“That’s not my style and I am not about to cut any deals or ask anyone to do anything with the bill,” said Mazza. “I just look at it on a safety side and I think it’s an important piece of legislation on highway safety.”

House Transportation chairman Pat Brennan says he’s very disappointed with the lack of action in the Senate.

“We’ve put a lot of work into this over a number of years,” said Brennan. “To have it bog down over a few disagreements among a few people, very few people seems a little disheartening. It’s a good bill.”

Sen. Mazza says there’s no point in having a ban on texting while driving any more because there’s no way for police officials to enforce the law.

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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