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Senate: Hands Off Cellphones at Stoplights

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Senate Transportation Committee Chair Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) urges senators to clarify the state's cellphone driving ban Wednesday. - TERRI HALLENBECK
  • TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Senate Transportation Committee Chair Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) urges senators to clarify the state's cellphone driving ban Wednesday.
Ever since a state law went into effect last October making it illegal to drive while holding a cellphone, it’s been perfectly legal to pick up the phone to talk, text or check email while stopped at a traffic light. The Vermont Senate is looking to change that.

Lawmakers never intended to allow use of hand-held phones while stopped in traffic, Sen. Peg Flory (R-Rutland) said Wednesday on the Senate floor. Not true, countered Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington). When they passed the cellphone law last year, senators specifically discussed how they were trying to ban use of hand-held devices only while a car is moving.

Whatever their initial intent, senators decided this year that it’s too dangerous for drivers to check their phone or send a text while a light is changing.

“That is very unsafe,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chair Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle). “If you want to get serious about banning texting … let’s go all the way. When you’re at a stop sign, you don’t know if you’re there for five seconds or one second.”

The Senate voted Wednesday to clarify that the ban on use of hand-held electronic devices applies to drivers “operating on a public highway, including while temporarily stationary because of traffic, a traffic-control device or other temporary delays.” Drivers can legally use their hand-held devices if they pull off the roadway to a safe place.

Sen. Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland) argued that it’s safer for him to check his phone at a stoplight than to try to pull off some Vermont roads. His fellow senators didn’t buy the argument. The bill, S.122, is up for a final vote Thursday before going to the House.

Lt. Garry Scott of the Vermont State Police agreed that drivers using their phones at a stoplight pose a danger, as they might not notice when the light changes, triggering crashes with others. The loophole has also made it trickier for police to enforce the law, he said.

Scott said since the law took effect in October, police have seen compliance ebb and flow. “We see sort of immediate compliance, then complacency seeps in,” he said.

Police generally had a policy of giving out warnings for the first month the law was in place and doling out tickets after that, Scott said. Throughout Vermont, police have issued 388 tickets and 383 warnings, Scott said. As of last week, the Burlington Police Department had issued 30 warnings and five tickets, Deputy Police Chief Bruce Bovat said.

Scott said police are being trained to look more carefully at whether cellphone use is a factor in car crashes. Motorists should also expect police to start beefing up enforcement next month, Scott said, when spring takes hold.


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