Vermont House Faces Cell Phone Dilemma

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(Host) Leaders in the Vermont House may face a difficult choice in the coming days over the distracted driving bill.

While the House and the Senate agree on a ban on texting, they disagree on a provision in the House bill that bans hand held cell phones.

If the House decides to keep the cell phone ban in the bill, Senate leaders say the legislation will likely die for the session.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) At the end of the session, there are a number of issues where the House and Senate engage in hard ball negotiations over various bills.   And at a various stages of these negotiations, one side usually indicates that they’d rather leave Montpelier without a bill than agree to a compromise they can’t support. Sometimes it’s a bluff – sometimes it’s not.

This appears to be what’s happening with the distracted driving bill. 

The Senate gave its strong approval to legislation that bans texting while driving and it deliberately chose not to include other activities in the bill.

The House decided to go much further.  It added a ban on hand held cell phones, the primary enforcement of the seat belt law and new restrictions on younger drivers to the Senate bill.

House Speaker Shap Smith says he’s holding out for the toughest bill he can get:

(Smith) "There’s continuing back and forth so we have not let go of the hand held ban at this point in time and I know that House members feel very strongly about that."

(Kinzel) Senate President Peter Shumlin doesn’t support the cell phone ban because he says it unfairly singles out just one of many distractions that drivers have:

(Shumlin) "The question is, at what point are you trying to legislate things that probably people are going to do anyway?  And an awful lot of Vermonters use their cell phones when they drive. A lot of Vermonters drink their coffee on the way to work… the list goes on and on and you’ve got to ask Vermonters to use their common sense. I don’t think laws necessarily help you."

(Kinzel) Shumlin says he is open to a compromise:

(Shumlin ) "I’m willing to try a law that will ban texting. I think that that’s what we should do since we have consensus there…and I think we’ll have a bill before we’re done. It might include some of the junior operator issues that the House had raised."

(Kinzel) Would Speaker Smith be willing to risk losing the texting ban if he can’t get the Senate to accept the House’s position on cell phones?

(Smith) "I think that we are trying to make sure that we can put together as comprehensive a highway safety bill as possible and we’re working to that goal right now."

(Kinzel) One part of a compromise could include a ban on the use of all electronic devices by 16 and 17 year old drivers.  This provision was included in the original House bill.

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

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