House approves seat belt, cell phone bill

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(Host) You could get pulled over for not wearing your seat belt or talking on a hand held cell phone under a bill approved today in the Vermont House.

Those provisions and a night restriction on young drivers are all in a highway safety bill that still has to clear the Senate in the final weeks of the Legislature.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) The vote on the bill marks the second time this year that the House has given its strong support to a primary enforcement seat belt law.

Under the state’s current secondary enforcement law, police officers can write a ticket for a seat belt violation only if they’ve stopped the car for a different reason.

The bill also prohibits drivers from using hand-held cell phones and it makes it illegal for 16 and 17-year-old drivers to operate a car between midnight and 5 a.m. The bill includes an exemption for young drivers traveling to a job or a school function.

House Judiciary committee chairman Bill Lippert says the legislation has one major goal.

(Lippert) “We have an opportunity to craft safety provisions which will, based on testimony and the experience of other states, save lives on Vermont’s highways and indeed that is the motivation for putting these provisions before you today.”

(Kinzel) Most of the nearly two hour debate focused on the new night time restriction for younger drivers.

Newport Rep. Scott Wheeler opposed this new prohibition:

(Wheeler) “There’s a possibility that I live in a rose colored world but I think most of today’s young people are far, far more responsible than many of the people of my generation. They are far more aware of the horrors of DWI. I think we need to be parents to our kids we don’t need the state to parent our kids.”

(Kinzel) But Mendon Rep. Harry Chen, who’s also an emergency room doctor, urged his colleagues to support the plan:

(Chen) “What we know is that a night time restriction will reduce crashes between 40 and 60% and yes it many ways we may be taking away some parental rights in terms of having them make the decisions. But we’re talking about our young people’s lives in Vermont. We’re talking about those young Vermonters who we want to keep in Vermont. I say let’s work to keep them alive and keep them healthy.”

(Kinzel) The House supported this section of the bill by almost a 2-1 margin and then gave its strong support to the overall legislation.

The fate of the bill during the current session is uncertain. Last week, Senate Transportation committee chairman Dick Mazza said he wanted to hold extensive hearings on the legislation before asking his committee vote on it.

For VPR News, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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