'Public safety issue': Reps approve phone ban for drivers


BRATTLEBORO -- State Rep. Valerie Stuart believes Vermont drivers should not use hand-held cell phones, and she can cite statistics to support her argument.

But Stuart, D-Brattleboro, also has a personal reason for backing a ban on such activity: She recalls an incident several years ago in which her sister-in-law was sideswiped by a "distracted driver who was merrily talking away on her cell phone."

"The only thing that stopped Caryn's car from careening into oncoming traffic was slamming into the guardrail at the end of her tailspin," Stuart recalled. "The person driving the other car just kept on driving."

That's one reason why Stuart was among a large majority of state House members voting this week in favor of H.62, which seeks to prohibit "the hand-held use of a portable electronic device while driving."

Support was not unanimous -- Rep. Matt Trieber, D-Rockingham, was among those opposed. Also, the bill's fate in the Senate and in the governor's office -- if it gets that far -- is uncertain.

But advocates say there is strong public support for the measure, which would bring Vermont in line with laws in some other states.

The Governors Highway Safety Association says 12 states along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving. In the Northeast, bans have been enacted in New York and Connecticut.

State Sen. Bill Doyle's 2012 Town Meeting survey, which included data from 148 towns and cities in Vermont, showed that 76 percent of respondents believed drivers should be prohibited from using cell phones while behind the wheel.

"Vermont should follow the lead of other American states and countries on this critical public safety issue," Stuart said. "There is no place in civil society for a supposed ‘right' that has the potential to do great public harm and, at the very worst, take another human being's life."

The bill, she notes, exempts "hands-free" use of electronic devices.

The measure also allows use of a hand-held device to call for assistance in an emergency situation, and it allows hand-held communication among law enforcement or emergency-service personnel.

On Friday, the House added further amendments including exemptions for "activation or deactivation of hands-free use as long as the device is in a cradle or otherwise securely mounted in the vehicle" and for hand-held use while operating a farm truck or farm machinery.

Stuart said a colleague in the House, a former driver's education teacher, cited statistics showing that cell-phone use plays a role in 6 percent of all crashes nationally. Those crashes account for 330,000 injuries, cause 2,600 deaths and cost taxpayers $43 billion.

She also cited a Virginia Tech study claiming that cell phone use is the No. 1 cause of driver inattention. And Stuart said cell phone usage has the same effect as a 0.08 percent blood-alcohol level in impeding a driver's reaction time.

But Trieber opposes Vermont's proposed ban as it is currently written, saying it is both too restrictive and too vague.

He's not convinced that cell phone usage causes accidents. And if cell phones are so dangerous, Trieber asks, why should the state ban only hand-held use?

"Studies are just not there on this particular subject," he said. "There's no difference for safety ratings for drivers whether they're using hand-held or whether they're using hands-free."

Trieber, who was one of 11 House members voting against the bill during a preliminary roll-call vote Thursday, also said the "language of the bill was way too broad as far as what devices it was banning."

"Could we be banning things we actually don't want to ban -- GPS devices and things like that?" Trieber asked.

He said he supports Vermont's current ban on text-messaging while driving. But Trieber also adds that "cell phones are a convenient scapegoat. People do all sorts of irresponsible things while driving."

In other legislative news related to Windham County and its lawmakers:

-- A bill guaranteeing paid sick time for all Vermont workers was approved by the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee.

Rep. John Moran, D-Wardsboro, is vice chairman of that committee. He has championed guaranteed sick leave and other causes that he believes will promote greater economic equality.

"Our committee is now looking at prevailing wage, which deals with minimum pay requirements for contractors who receive state or federal funding," Moran said.

"The wage is set at the average compensation for equivalent work in a given geographical setting," he added. "Proposed legislation seeks a level playing field in competitive bidding, particularly for Vermont business facing out-of-state, low-paying competitors."

-- Supporters of more-stringent limits on political giving had another chance to push the issue in the House when the legislative body was forced to make a technical change to the state's recently approved campaign-finance statute.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, complained about "the lack of real limits on large donations and the lack of required disclosure about the employer and occupation of large donors" in the current law.

But an attempt to amend the statute failed on Thursday. Among a minority supporting that revision was Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro; and Rep. Tim Goodwin, a Weston Independent who represents several Windham County towns.

When the technical matter comes up in the Senate, Windham County Sen. Peter Galbraith said he will attempt to "revisit the campaign-finance issue."

The Townshend-based Democrat railed against the law as it was approved earlier this session, including the statute's allowance of "unlimited contributions from parties to political candidates."

"The technical-corrections bill is amendable in the Senate, and so the Senate will have a chance to restore lower limits on what can be contributed to political parties and to actually put a limit on the amount that can be contributed by a party to a candidate," Galbraith said.

-- Galbraith also noted that the Senate has voted to repeal a series of abortion restrictions that were deemed outdated and unconstitutional.

One such provision reportedly called for 20 years' imprisonment for assisting a woman with an abortion if she died as a result. The penalty decreased to a decade in prison if the woman survived.

"We are repealing a Vermont abortion law from the early part of the last century that is clearly unconstitutional, hasn't been valid for decades and that not even the right-to-lifers support," Galbraith said.

-- The House on Tuesday gave final approval to a bill that allows courts to deny parental rights to perpetrators of sexual assault when that assault results in a pregnancy.

The bill came about last year when two Brattleboro Union High School students researched the issue and lobbied for introduction of legislation.

The bill (H.88) was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

-- Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, said his House Human Services Committee is doing "due diligence" in hearing detailed reports from the state Agency of Human Services -- "the largest agency in state government."

"One of the tasks we take most seriously is when a child can no longer live with their family of origin and must be placed in foster care," Mrowicki said.

"A trend in foster car is kinship care -- placing children with extended family. And within that group, more and more children are being placed with grandparents," Mrowicki said.

"We continue to look into this and ascertain the unique needs of grandparents. Children can thrive in these situations, but there are difficulties when grandparents are pressed into raising their grandchildren when they thought they'd be closer to retiring."

Mike Faher is the political beat writer at the Reformer. He can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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