Targeting distracted driving, Vermont law to take effect Oct. 1

by Lucia McGloin | 9/24/14 6:37pm

The law prohibits the use of handheld devices, like phones, while driving.

Starting next week, the use of handheld devices while driving will be illegal in Vermont, with legislation to follow in New Hampshire next summer. The two states join 12 others with legislation against handheld devices, including Connecticut, New Jersey and New York.

The ban, which aims to reduce distracted driving, prohibits the use of any handheld electronic device. Drivers can still use their phones, but only through hands-free accessories such as Bluetooth or a dock that keeps the device stationary.

The law, which goes into effect Oct. 1, will clarify practices for law enforcement and the public, said Vermont State Police Lieutenant Garry Scott said. Enforcing existing laws against texting is sometimes difficult due to confusion about whether a driver using a phone for other purposes is legal, he said.

“Now if you have any electronic device in your hand you are subject to being stopped,” Scott said.

Violation of the ban incurs a fine between $100 and $200 for the first offense, and a fine between $250 and $500 for subsequent violations over two years.

Vermont state Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, a leading proponent of the bill, said she hopes that the law will improve driving habits.

Distracted drivers cause crashes that lead to more than nine fatalities and 1,600 injuries every day in the U.S., according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data cited in materials publicizing the Vermont law that prohibits handheld devices.

Implementation follows a Vermont Highway Safety Alliance education campaign under the banner “phones down, heads up” that publicized the law through various forms of media, posters and bumper stickers. Temporary signs have been posted along Vermont interstates to inform drivers of the law, with permanent signs to follow at state borders and other strategic locations.

Director of Enforcement and Safety for the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles Glen Button said he is “fairly confident” that citizens are aware of the law, citing an August survey published by the Governor’s Highway Safety Office that showed 78 percent of respondents having heard of the legislation.

New Hampshire will launch a similar public education campaign in December, Department of Safety spokesperson Michael Todd said.

Vermont state Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said he opposed the legislation because he felt the law did not adequately address the problem of distracted driving.

Others are more optimistic, seeing the law as a big gain for public safety.

“One of the things that we know is that if there is a law, most people will abide by that law,” Button said. “We all like to multitask, but when we are driving a car, the number one task is to drive safely.”

The law stands to benefit not only drivers, but cyclists and children walking to school, Grad said.

“From a public safety standpoint, I’m thrilled,” she said.