House, Senate OK cell ban compromise

By Neal P. Goswami
Vermont Press Bureau

MONTPELIER — House and Senate negotiators signed off on a deal Wednesday to ban the use of cellphones and other electronic devices while driving.

The House wasted no time ratifying the conference committee’s report, voting 129-6 to accept the new compromise plan that will make it illegal to talk on a phone or use other electronic devices while operating a motor vehicle beginning Oct. 1.

The measure had been pronounced dead several times in recent weeks only to be resurrected. Gov. Peter Shumlin has spent the legislative session urging lawmakers to hang up the bill, saying he did not want to legislate common sense.

But with the bill on the fast-track to his desk, Shumlin’s office indicated Wednesday he will sign it, because of the changes made by House and Senate negotiators.

The Vermont House passed the ban in a standalone bill earlier this year by an overwhelming margin. The House had taken similar action at least three other times in recent years, though, before seeing it stall in the Senate.

It appeared to be picking up steam this year, when longtime opponent Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, declared his newfound support, lifting the legislation’s roadblock to becoming law. He argued the state’s ban on texting while driving is impossible to enforce without it.

The legislation cleared Mazza’s committee only to be held up in the Senate Judiciary Committee by its chairman, Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington. Sears said he wanted a more broad approach that dealt with distracted driving as a whole.

The House found another way to move forward, however. The ban was attached to an unrelated bill making miscellaneous changes to the Department of Motor Vehicles. The legislation had no reason to go to Senate Judiciary, effectively circumventing Sears’ opposition.

The compromise plan calls for an effective date of Oct. 1, rather than July 1. That will allow the state to launch educational public service announcements by Aug. 1, as required in the new language.

“It does no good if we’re going to have something and nobody knows about it,” Mazza, a member of the conference committee, said.

The bill will carry a fine of at least $100 for a first offense, followed by fines up to $500 for subsequent offense. The violation will not carry points against a driver’s license, however.

Rep. David Potter, D-Clarendon, said the House reluctantly agreed to the Senate side’s request to remove the assessment of points on a person’s license for violating the ban, but would not derail progress because of it.

“Removing points isn’t a deal breaker for the House. I think both the House and the Senate should be excited about the progress of this legislation, making our highways safer,” he said.

He praised the public awareness campaign required in the compromise.

“We’re not just springing this on them,” Potter said. “We’re going to have a little education campaign and that will be good for all of us.”

Sears was also a member of the conference committee. He did not sign off on the measure Wednesday but said he was happy with the changes that made it “a much better bill.”

“While I still don’t support it, and I can’t sign off on the conference committee report, I do think we’ve come a long way,” he told fellow conferees.

Sears said later that his placement on the committee allowed him to advocate for some of the changes. “I’m glad I was on the conference committee. I’m glad I was able to steer in that direction,” he said.

Shumlin spokeswoman Susan Allen said those changes were welcomed by Shumlin.

“Gov. Shumlin wanted to ensure the bill made sense for Vermont, wouldn’t increase Vermonters’ insurance rates or harm their driving records. He appreciated the Legislature’s willingness to compromise on this bill and expects to sign it,” she said in a written statement.

Despite opposing views on the ban, Sears and Mazza, both longtime legislators, said they remain friends and carry no hard feelings from the showdown.

The measure awaits final approval in the Senate before heading to Shumlin’s desk to be signed into law.


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