Vt. Ban on Handheld Devices Takes Effect

The use of cell phones and other handheld devices behind the wheel on Vermont roadways can bring fines

Vermont's ban on handheld devices while driving took effect Wednesday, but New England Cable News did spot some drivers talking on cell phones and texting on Vermont roads, in violation of the new rule.

"I'd be lying if I said I've never texted and driven before," said Vivian Nicastro, a University of Vermont senior.

"I'm in the same boat," added Nicastro's classmate, Sydney Durand.

Nicastro and Durand were among a group of University of Vermont students who were observing driving behaviors in Burlington Wednesday for a policy advocacy class. The students wanted to compare numbers from a sample of drivers they tallied talking on handheld phones or visibly texting a few weeks ago with how many they saw doing the same thing on Main Street the first day of Vermont's anti-distracted driving law. Their goal was to gauge if there was a change in behavior.

Regarding their personal cell phone use, Nicastro and Durand said with the gadgets so accessible and tempting, it did take them some time to break themselves of old habits. But numbers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, like nine Americans killed and 1,600 injured daily in distracted driving crashes, woke them up to the urgency to put down phones.

"I strive to never really do it," Nicastro said of her view of using hand-held technology while driving. "It can wait."

"It's something I'm definitely against," Durand said.

Vermont hopes more people make those personal pledges. The new rules do allow hands-free conversations through technology like Bluetooth. Devices should be secured in cradles if they're to be operated hands-free, the law says.

Highway message boards and bumper stickers are helping spread the word of the new law, but the story of Debbie Drewniak likely resonates even more. The Colchester woman suffered permanent, near-deadly injuries when struck by a distracted driver in 2011. "Distracted driving is not worth it," she told NECN this summer when Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vt., authorized the new law to take effect Oct. 1.

James Lockridge, the executive director of the Youth Safety Council of Vermont, said even though many teenagers grew up texting and using social media sites, he knows people of all ages are prone to distraction. Lockridge said he hopes families talk together about the seriousness of Vermont's new law.

"Their choices can ruin lives if they're bad ones," Lockridge said, describing the use of handheld devices behind the wheel. "The responsibility a driver has isn't just to themselves, but is to a much wider community of real people."

A first offense could cost you more than $150 in fines and fees, according to law enforcement officials. It would not leave a point on your license, unless you were using a cell phone in a work zone. Of course, it's totally okay to use the cell phone while driving in Vermont if there's an emergency and you're calling 911. C-B radios are also allowed under the new law.

Connecticut, New York, and a growing list of other states have similar bans in place. For more information on Vermont's new law, visit the website of the Vermont Highway Safety Alliance.  

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