Senate, House Take Different Approaches To Highway Safety Legislation

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(Host) The Vermont Senate has given its final approval to legislation that bans texting while driving. 

But as VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports, quick passage of the bill is in jeopardy, because House leaders want to pass a more comprehensive highway safety bill.

(Kinzel) This is a clear case where the Senate wants to take one approach on an issue and the House wants to deal with it completely differently.

Senate leaders say they feel it’s important to quickly respond to increasing concerns about drivers who text while operating their cars.

Speaking on VPR’s Vermont Edition, Washington County senator Phil Scott said the Senate Transportation committee made a deliberate decision not to include other items in their bill such as a ban on cell phones:

(Scott) "So we thought why not go for something that we can agree on – keep it as simple as possible. We’re not saying that we’re not going to take a look at the other issues. Two years ago, we passed a bill as well to ban the use of electronic devices by junior operators. So it’s not something that we won’t take a look at."

(Kinzel) The legislation will now be reviewed by the House. Moretown Rep. Maxine Grad is vice chairwoman of the House Judiciary committee – a panel that has spent a lot of time on highway safety issues. 

She says it’s likely that the House will add a hand held cell phone ban and the primary enforcement of Vermont’s seat belt law to the bill. Then they’ll send the legislation back to the Senate:

(Grad) "The thinking is – saving lives and preventing deaths on our highways. And the thinking is also based on testimony that we heard – that this is a public health risk, it’s a public health threat especially to our youth. It deserves a comprehensive approach. We know that especially with cell phones your likelihood of getting into a crash while using a cell phone is quadrupled."

(Kinzel) The House and Senate do agree on the need to incorporate a strong public education campaign in the legislation.  Senator Scott says the successful "click or ticket" campaign to encourage seat belt use is a model for the distracted driver bill:

(Scott) "That seemed to work. We’re at 87% compliance and we don’t have a primary enforcement of seat belts and that’s fairly high – 87 % is doing very well. The other thing about this bill – and I keep saying that we don’t want this to be a punishment, we don’t want it to be after the fact we want to see it as a deterrent for bad behavior so it’s about education we want there to be a reason not to."

(Kinzel) The Senate Transportation committee will hold a public hearing on a proposed cell phone ban next week at the Statehouse.

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

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