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

Active Debate At Statehouse Over Hand Held Cell Phone Ban

vpr-mazzashumlin-20140130.jpg
AP/Toby Talbot
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Sen. Dick Mazza (left) and Gov. Peter Shumlin disagree about a new law that would ban hand held cell phones while driving. The two are pictured at the Vermont Statehouse in 2009.

There’s an active debate at the Statehouse over a proposal to ban all drivers from using hand held cell phones. The Senate Transportation committee is taking a serious look at this issue despite the strong opposition of Governor Peter Shumlin.

For many years, Senate Transportation chairman Dick Mazza has opposed a ban on hand held cell phones for adult drivers in Vermont. But Mazza has had a change of heart.

Under current Vermont law, it’s illegal for any person to text while driving and it’s against the law for drivers under 18 to operate a car while using any hand held electronic device.

Mazza says it’s very difficult for law enforcement officers to distinguish between an adult driver who is texting, and that’s illegal, and one who is using a hand held cell phone.

"I think anything we can do to at least prevent a few accidents a year is very beneficial." - Senate Transportation chairman Dick Mazza

A recent survey found that 60 percent of all high school seniors text while they drive. Mazza thinks a number of adults do it too.

“They’re holding the phone lower now because they don’t want to be caught texting, so I think it’s time to look at the whole picture. Maybe by banning hand held phones you would help, and the texting law would be more enforced,” said Mazza. “I think by separating them it leaves a big open space that law enforcement really can’t control.”

And Mazza thinks cell phone use is different from other forms of driver distraction.

“You’re always going to have that discussion.  Do you drink coffee in a car? [Do] you eat a sandwich? I just think the conversation itself kind of distracts you from the highway,” said Mazza. “And I think anything we can do to at least prevent a few accidents a year is very beneficial.”

Governor Peter Shumlin has a very different point of view and he doesn’t support the hand held cell phone ban.

“My own view is that cell phones are a part of life today. I encourage hands-free devices. I think Vermonters should use them,” said Shumlin. “But I think the best thing we can use is common sense, and I don’t think you can legislate common sense. If you could, we’d have done it a long time ago.”

"I don't think you can legislate common sense. If you could, we'd have done it a long time ago." -Gov. Peter Shumlin

And Shumlin is concerned that enacting a ban will simply encourage people to break the law.

“Let’s be honest about this. In the states -there’s only 13 of them - that have passed bans on cell phones while driving,” said Shumlin. “I think that you’ve created more outlaws than you have common sense.”

Vermont does have a small exception to the current law allowing adults to drive and use hand held cell phones.

The use of any hand held electronic device is illegal in highway work zones and violators are subject to a fine of at least 100 dollars and two points on their license.

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