Police agencies and transportation officials across Vermont are launching a new crackdown to combat distracted driving.
Using high-visibility saturation patrols that will run through this weekend, the public safety leaders want to remind locals and visitors alike about state laws barring handheld cell phone use and texting while driving.
“We’re entrusted with the safety of the roadway and everybody on it,” said Officer Cole Charbonneau of the Shelburne Police Department, one the departments that teamed up on the new “Connect to Disconnect” campaign that started Thursday on busy Route 7 and will conclude on April 15.
On the day the effort launched, a spotter on a hill was peering into vehicles using binoculars, then radioing officers from several police agencies—to send them after drivers he said were violating Vermont law.
The spotter was looking for people either texting behind the wheel or who were simply holding a phone. All devices in vehicles in Vermont need to be hands-free.
“There really is no text or phone call that’s worth hurting yourself or someone else,” Charbonneau said.
The goal of the “Connect to Disconnect” effort is to raise awareness of the dangers of distracted driving and the hefty cash fines that can come from it, organizers said.
“Our troopers are being directed to write tickets for these violations,” said Sgt. Jay Riggen of the Vermont State Police. “The time for warnings is over.”
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 3,100 people were killed in distracted driving crashes in 2017.
Debbie Drewniak of Colchester wants to see that number come down.
She had nearly every bone in her body broken in 2011 when she was hit by a teen driver prosecutors said was more focused on text messages than the road.
Drewniak was left permanently disabled, but with her strained voice, regularly talks to young drivers about distractions.
She gave a presentation Wednesday night at a prevention program at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington.
During an earlier version of that same presentation that Drewniak offered at the UVM Medical Center in November of 2013, she told necn, “I hope people don’t text and drive; I hope they get the message.”
The message may be timed for April’s distracted driving awareness month, but organizers hope it sticks—year-round.
“Put it down—drive,” NHTSA law enforcement liaison Ted Minall said of using an electronic device while driving, namely a phone. “Driving is a full-time occupation.”