Vermont Bans Cell Use Behind Wheel

By Alessandria Schumacher

As of October 1, Vermont law has banned the use of all handheld cell phones and other electronics. The goal of this law is to decrease distracted driving and increase road safety.  The ban includes the use of cell phones for calling and texting, but not calling over speakerphone or Bluetooth.  Using a handheld cell phone is now a primary stop, meaning that if a police officer sees a driver using a handheld cell phone, then the officer can pull over and ticket that driver, even if the driver is not violating any other laws.

The former Vermont law regarding electronics use prohibited the use of any portable electronic device by drivers under 18 years old, having a movie on a screen that is visible to the driver and texting for drivers of any age.  Handheld cell phones were illegal in work zones.

The new law bans having an electronic device in your hand while behind the wheel for all ages in all areas.  A violation of this law could result in a ticket worth anywhere from $100 to $500.

On June 12, Vermont governor Peter Shumlin signed the bill on the handheld electronics ban into law.

“I listened to Vermonters who desperately want this bill,” Shumlin said at the ceremony in Colchester, Vermont where he signed the bill into law.

“I had a view that I think some share — that I think it can be difficult to legislate common sense,” Shumlin said at the ceremony.  “It has become clear to me … that Vermonters really want us to sign this bill and try to make our roads more safe.”

Originally, Shumlin had been opposed to the first draft of the bill banning cell phone use because first offenses gave drivers one point on their licenses, thus raising their insurance rates.

The version of the bill that was passed instead includes a fine for the first offense, but no points toward the driver’s license.  Accumulation of 10 or more points over two years leads to license suspension.  However, texting while driving still carries a penalty of a fine and two points.

In an interview with VTDigger.org, Lieutenant Garry Scott, Commander of the Vermont State Police Traffic Safety Division explained how the cell phone ban came to be what it is today.

“It started with just the texting, and we realized that it didn’t work because we weren’t able to determine whether it was a text or this,” Scott said, looking down at his phone and scrolling through, demonstrating what often appears to officers as texting.

“This is the next step,” he said of the new ban. “Then we’ll kind of adjust as we go from here to see if we have to improve upon it.”

“Now just having the device in your hand is enough for the officer to stop you and then conduct an investigation as to what is going on in the vehicle,” he said.

If it is necessary to make a phone call while driving, Scott suggested having your phone in a cradle somewhere that it can be voice activated, and then making the call using Bluetooth or speakerphone.

However, Scott brings up one possible common sense exception.

“Maybe you are dialing 911 for a reason … that obviously would be an exception to the law,” Scott said.

One other possible exemption is amateur HAM operators.  According to Mike Stern, a member of the Radio Amateurs of Northern Vermont club, the state of Vermont recognizes amateur HAM radio operators as a safety organization, just as it recognizes fire and rescue groups.

Amateur radio networks become crucial in emergencies when cell phones and landlines fail, such as during storms like tropical storm Irene.  HAM radios require the operator to hold a microphone, but there is no need to push any buttons.  This would technically violate the ban on handheld electronic devices, but also helps authorities communicate in emergency situations.

Vermont now joins 14 other U.S. states that prohibit handheld cell phone use in an effort to make roads safer.

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