Lawmakers propose ban on cell phone use in cars

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(Host) A group of lawmakers wants to make it illegal to use a hand-held cell phone while driving a car.

Industry representatives and the governor’s highway safety council say they’d like to expand the legislation to include other forms of driver distraction.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) You’re driving down the interstate when you hear that familiar signal….

(Cell phone answering sounds)

Should you answer the phone while driving, perhaps in heavy traffic, or call the person back when you reach your destination?

A group of 15 legislators think you should wait, particularly if you’re using a hand-held cell phone, and they’ve introduced a bill that imposes a statewide ban on this activity, unless the driver is making an emergency 911 call.

The legislation doesn’t ban all cell phone use by drivers – just the hand-held devices. The state of New York has passed a similar ban, and a number of other states are looking at this approach.

Mendon Representative Harry Chen is the lead sponsor of the bill. He’s a doctor who sees this issue as an important safety concern:

(Chen) “Last year we had a significant rise in the number of people who died on the roads in Vermont and, I think, as a Legislature, we have to look at every possible opportunity we have to decrease the number of people who are dying on our roads.”

Chuck Satterfield is a spokesperson for the governor’s highway safety commission. Satterfield doesn’t want to limit the ban to hand-held phones because he feels any cell phone use by drivers is dangerous. He also wants to expand the bill to include other potentially distracting activities:

(Satterfield) “We should just have a distracted driving legislation. If you’re seen weaving all over the road because you’re not paying attention, whatever the activity is – whether it’s from using a cell phone to reading a paper or applying makeup – that should probably be illegal.”

Andrew MacLean represents Verizon Wireless at the Statehouse. MacLean says the company would also like to broaden the discussion over this bill. In addition, he’s concerned that the legislation, in its current form, could hurt efforts to expand the state’s cell phone network:

(MacLean) “The state is trying to increase cell phone coverage; the governor has a big part of his proposal to increase coverage on all the major thoroughfares in the state. We just want Vermont to be a good avenue, or be receptive to, increased development, and I think this might be viewed negatively from a development perspective.”

The House Transportation committee is expected to review this legislation in the coming weeks.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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