In Policy Turnaround, Vt. Gov. Signs Cell Phone Ban

(NECN: Jack Thurston, Colchester, Vt.) - Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vt., signed a bill into law making it illegal to use a handheld cell phone while driving in Vermont starting October 1. The restrictions also cover the use of other portable electronics by drivers. Hands-free conversations, such as through Bluetooth technology, will be ok. "Vermonters really want us to sign this bill and try and make our roads more safe," Shumlin said Thursday.

Shumlin once opposed the very legislation he enacted Thursday, having said before that it's hard to “legislate common sense.” But he told reporters before he signed the bill that he changed his mind after hearing many Vermonters' voices on the issue.

"I think it is really great," said Debbie Drewniak of Colchester, describing the new rules.

Drewniak suffered permanent injuries, and was nearly killed, in a 2011 crash blamed on distracted driving. A driver struck Drewniak while she was outside with her dog. That driver, Emma Vieira, was 18 at the time of the crash. She admitted her mind was more on text messages that night than it was on the road. Her October 2012 guilty plea to a charge of negligent operation with serious injury resulting meant a short prison sentence, home confinement, and a lengthy period on probation.

"I wish I could go back in time and fix it all, but there's some mistakes that can't be fixed," Vieira told students at her former high school in Colchester last month, when she gave a presentation on the dangers of distracted driving.

Drewniak wrote her state senator, Sen. Richard Mazza, D-Chittenden County, asking him to push for the law, which had been discussed for about a decade before becoming a reality. "If your car is on, turn your cell phone off, because distracted driving is not worth it," Drewniak told New England Cable News Thursday.

Mazza agreed with Drewniak's assessment, calling distracted driving an "epidemic." Mazza, too, acknowledged he warmed to the idea over time.

According to figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2012, more than 3,300 people were killed in crashes blamed on distractions. More than 420,000 were injured, the NHTSA data shows.

Mazza said law enforcement agencies had complained that Vermont's existing ban on sending text messages while driving was hard to enforce. From afar, officers might not have been able to tell if a person was texting or dialing a number to call, which was not specifically banned previously.

"It's very straightforward. If you're manipulating a handheld device, you're in violation of the law," said Chief Jennifer Morrison of the Colchester, Vermont Police Dept., describing the new rules. "The fallacy of being able to multi-task is just that: it's a fallacy."

Rulebreakers will face significant cash fines, Mazza said. First, Vermonters can expect to see a big public education campaign in the lead-up to the October 1 start date of the handheld devices ban.

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