Wireless in Vermont, Part Three

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(Host) As more and more drivers in Vermont use cell phones, there are growing concerns that public safety could be jeopardized.

But as VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports in this installment of our series "Wireless in Vermont," there are no simple solutions to this issue.

(Sound of sheriff driving a car.)

(Kinzel) When Washington County Sheriff Don Edson patrols the roads of central Vermont these days, he’s constantly reminded of how advances in telephone technology have affected the world of highway safety. On a recent trip through Montpelier, it didn’t take long for Edson to spot what he says has become a common occurrence:

(Edson) "See, here’s a guy ¿ he’s talking on his cell phone, driving with one hand. It’s a good idea to keep both hands on the wheel, I always thought. That’s the way I was taught."

(Kinzel) Edson and many highway safety officials say concerns about cell phone use by drivers are really part of a larger issue of distracted drivers.

Over the past few years, Edson says he’s witnessed some disturbing driving trends in Vermont. People are driving much faster ¿ often fifteen to twenty miles over the speed limit. While traveling at these excessive speeds, Edson says a growing number of drivers are tailgating the car ahead of them. Now add driver distractions into the mix and Edson says you have a deadly combination:

(Edson) "It’s amazing why we don’t have more accidents. We see people¿ I saw one guy one day reading a newspaper and drinking a cup of coffee and the newspaper draped across the steering wheel. I saw another guy writing on a pad of paper ¿ cell phone in one hand, pen in the other. He must have been using his knee to drive. It is just amazing that more people aren’t injured or more accidents occur because of it."

(Kinzel) Last year, New York State became the first state in the region to pass a law that bans the use of cell phones while a driver is operating their vehicle. Edson doubts that legislation can be effective unless a massive public education campaign is launched before any bans are put into place:

(Edson) "It’s systemic and I don’t know what the answer is. More enforcement would be nice but I don’t think that’s the complete answer. I think there needs to be a lot more public education about the problem. You didn’t think you’d hear a police officer say more enforcement wasn’t the whole answer did you ?"

(Kinzel) The Governor’s Highway Safety Commission is keeping a close eye on this issue. Commission Director Jeanne Johnson says officials hope to keep better accident statistics to track how often driver distraction is a major factor. But Johnson says legislation, like New York’s cell phone ban, may not be the right answer for Vermont at this time:

(Johnson) "I don’t see that passing a law is going to change an attitude¿. This is a matter really of driver and individual responsibility."

(Kinzel) And Johnson says it’s important to remember that the use of cell phones in cars has also had a positive impact:

(Johnson) "On the one hand, they can easily lead to a driver being distracted because they are trying to dial numbers or being involved in conversation. But on the other hand, I understand that a lot of hazardous situations and crashes are reported a lot more quickly to 911 because people have cell phones and they can just dial and it can be immediate. That has a life saving value ¿ that’s the flip side."

(Kinzel) Last year, legislation was introduced in the House that would ban the use of cell phones by drivers. It was up for debate on the House floor when lawmakers decided to postpone action in order to look at the larger issue of distracted drivers. It was returned to the House Transportation Committee; it’s been sitting in that committee since that time.

Committee Chairman Dick Pembroke says there are still many outstanding questions about the legislation:

(Pembroke) "People really haven’t got a handle on the whole issue and they’re concerned if they do anything hastily they’re not sure what the ramifications are going to be. I think it’s going to take some time, just like the seat belt law. It’s going to take some time for people to understand just what the ramifications are out there and what the ramifications would be for legislation."

(Kinzel) Pembroke says the committee will look at this issue in the next few weeks but he says it’s very doubtful that the panel will vote out any legislation this session.

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

(Host ) Tomorrow in our series, VPR’s John Dillon looks at the value of cell phones in emergency services and the debate over cell phone radiation.

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