Despite Public Support, Lawmakers Divided On Phone Bans

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(Host) There’s broad public support for a ban on texting on a mobile telephone while driving. And a lot of people also think drivers shouldn’t be permitted to use their cell phones at all while they’re behind the wheel.

But there’s no agreement between the House and Senate about how far the state should go on such bans.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports

(Kinzel) In the 42 years that Washington County Senator Bill Doyle has conducted his Town Meeting Day survey, he’s never gotten a response as strong as this year’s question dealing with a ban on texting while driving.

Doyle has tabulated more than twelve thousand surveys and 96 percent favor a ban.

(Doyle) "I’ve never asked the one on texting and 96 percent shatters all records. No survey has had yeses over 90 percent."

(Kinzel) There was also strong support for a ban on cell phone use by drivers. Seventy-four percent of respondents support a ban while 20 percent did not – 6 percent were undecided.

The cell phone ban highlights a major disagreement between the House and the Senate.

The House has passed a comprehensive highway safety bill that includes a texting ban, a ban on hand held cell phones, a primary enforcement seat belt law and new nighttime restrictions for junior operators.

Meanwhile, the Senate has chosen to pass only the texting ban and not the other items.

Senate Transportation Chairman Dick Mazza says these various issues need to be considered separately. He says he’s committed to passing the texting ban this year.

(Mazza) "I still think it’s the number one priority. If we’re going to do something legislatively with banning texting, I think that certainly should be the first priority at this point."

(Kinzel) Mazza says he doesn’t support primary enforcement of Vermont’s seat belt law because voluntary efforts have been successful. He also has strong concerns about a cell phone ban.

(Mazza) "The jury’s still out on the hands-free or hand-held cell phone usage. There’s an issue more of distraction than there is on the phone basis. And so I think that I would like to still set the priority of getting the texting ban passed immediately."

(Kinzel) The legislation will soon be considered by a House-Senate conference committee.  House Speaker Shap Smith says he’s optimistic that the House will prevail on some of these issues.

(Smith) "I do think that it’s not just an issue about texting while driving. It’s a broader issue about highway safety and making sure that our roads are saf. … And ultimately I’m very comfortable and confident that we’ll have a bill that will address highway safety issues at the end of the session."

(Kinzel) Governor Jim Douglas says he supports the Senate position of passing a texting ban now and leaving the other issues for further debate next year.

For VPR News, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier

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