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

Signal Still Strong For Cell Phone Ban While Driving

Backers of a bill that bans drivers from using all hand held electronic devices feel that their legislation has a new lease on life. Last week it appeared that the bill was dead for the session, but the House has put the proposal back into play.

Earlier this session, the House overwhelmingly supported the legislation as a way to give police officers a new tool to enforce the existing ban on texting and driving.

Law enforcement officials testified that when a driver is using a hand held electronic device, it’s very difficult to determine if they’re talking on the phone, texting or changing songs on their portable music player. So this bill prohibits drivers from using any hand held device.

"The police want this bill badly, the public wants this bill badly, and somehow some folks ignored it." - Senate Transportation Chairman Dick Mazza

The legislation was unanimously approved by the Senate Transportation committee and was sent to the Judiciary committee for its review. It soon became clear that the bill might never emerge from this panel because of the opposition of committee chairman Dick Sears.

Then late last week, the House attached the ban to a bill that makes some key changes at the Department of Motor Vehicles. This legislation is considered to be a “must pass” bill this session.

So now the full Senate will decide if it wants to keep the hand held ban as part of the larger DMV bill. Senate Transportation chairman Dick Mazza says it’s critical to pass the ban this year.

“There’s no sense in having a ban on texting if you can’t enforce it and without a ban on hand held devices you can’t enforce texting,” said Mazza. “The police want this bill badly the public wants this bill badly and somehow some folks ignored it.”

House Transportation chairman Pat Brennan thinks there’s a reasonable chance now that lawmakers will ban hand held devices this year.

“I am still hopeful. Like I said, it’s been many years in the making this isn’t our first day out with this bill,” aid Brennan. “It’s one I initially didn’t support in previous years but I, like Senator Mazza, [have] come full circle on this and am in full support of a cell phone hand held ban at this point.”

The legislation does have a very powerful opponent – that’s Governor Peter Shumlin, who could veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

“My experience has been that it’s very tough to legislate common sense,” said Shumlin. “And that when states try they usually don’t succeed.”

It’s expected that this issue will come back before the full Senate in the next few days.

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