MONTPELIER -- Motorists who text while driving could pay a stiffer penalty, while the use of a cellphone could be banned in highway construction zones, under bills presented to Vermont House committees Tuesday.
Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn, the top law enforcement officer in Gov. Peter Shumlin's administration, said he was especially eager to see passage of a ban on electronic distractions in construction zones, at the least cellphones.
"In work zones, I think it's a really good idea," Flynn said, adding that sections of road lined with orange barrels, construction machinery, lane changes and helmeted workers present challenges for drivers that should prompt them to put down the cellphone.
Bills under consideration before the House Judiciary and Transportation committees would ban the devices in work zones and would increase the penalties for texting while driving from a $100 fine to $250. Fines on the second and later offenses would rise from $250 to $500. Texting is defined as composing or sending text messages, instant messages and emails.
Motor Vehicles Commissioner Robert Ide said the governor takes a libertarian view in opposing most restrictions on the use of electronic devices in cars. But because of increased hazards in construction zones, Ide said, "the governor's position moves from opposed to neutral."
"He thinks that it is difficult to legislate intelligence or stupidity," Ide said in explaining Shumlin's views. "He thinks it is frequently a bad idea to use those devices, but he thinks it is the operator of that vehicle who should be in control of that decision."
Ide argued that the texting ban, which was passed in 2010, should be given more time to work before making any changes to the penalties.
"We just don't think there's adequate proof to make a change at this point," he said.
Rep. William Lippert, D-Hinesburg and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said two straw polls of committee members Tuesday showed support for a ban on hand-held electronic devices while driving, as well as a bill allowing "primary enforcement" of Vermont's seat belt requirement.
For drivers over 18, Vermont currently uses secondary enforcement on seat belts, meaning that a person can be ticketed for not wearing a seat belt if the officer pulls them over first for something else.