MONTPELIER — The Vermont House gave final approval Friday to a bill that bans the handheld use of cellphones and other electronic devices while driving.
The legislation, H.62, was passed on a voice vote after lawmakers approved two amendments on the floor. Final passage came one day after the chamber advanced the bill on a voice vote, following a bit of lively debate and a plea for passage by Rep. Mark Huntley, D-Cavendish, who said his son died in a crash because he was searching for music on his smartphone.
Under the bill, using a phone or other device while behind the wheel would be allowed only with a hands-free feature. Twelve states already have such laws.
A first offense would carry a fine of $100 to $200. All subsequent offenses within a two-year period would carry a fine of $250 to $500, the bill states.
Also, a first offense would put two points on a driver’s record, while subsequent offenses would result in five points. At 10 points a driver’s license is suspended.
Rep. Teo Zagar, D-Barnard, introduced an amendment allowing the use of hands to activate hands-free mode, as long as the phone or device is in a cradle or otherwise secured. Without the amendment, the bill would have required hands-free mode to be activated by voice only. Many people don’t own voice-activated phones.
“In many ways this is safer and requires less attention than changing a CD,” Zagar said.
The House Judiciary Committee found it to be a friendly amendment and it passed the full House on a voice vote.
Rep. Warren Van Wyck, a Ferrisburgh Democrat, introduced an amendment carving out a special exemption for farm workers. The measure was intended primarily for Addison and Franklin counties, he said, “where there is still a lot of farming.”
The exemption will allow those operating registered or unregistered farm trucks to use their phones to communicate with each other. Van Wyck said farmers once used citizen-band radios to dispatch vehicles but now typically use phones.
Rep. Thomas Koch, of Barre, who reported the bill for the Judiciary Committee, said the panel found it to be a friendly amendment because it is narrowly construed and benefits “a segment of the economy we value.” It was also approved by the full body on a voice vote.
A third amendment from Rep. Robert Bouchard, a Colchester Republican, was withdrawn after committee members opposed it. It would have eliminated the five-point penalty for a second or subsequent offense.
“I think the point system is too severe for handheld,” he said.
But most committee members said they wanted to maintain the same penalties already assigned to texting while driving.
The measure now moves to the Senate, where it appears to have enough support to pass.
However, Gov. Peter Shumlin again reiterated his opposition, saying it is difficult to legislate common sense. The governor stopped short of saying he would veto the bill, though.
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