HANDS OFF! Know what handheld devices you can use while driving
ADDISON COUNTY — As most Vermont drivers know, a new law that went into effect this past Wednesday makes it illegal to use a variety of electronic devices — including hand-held cell phones and MP3 players — while driving on Vermont roads. Violators are subject to fines and points assessed against their driving record.
In the early days, local police had not charged anyone for infractions of the law, but they said they fully intend to enforce it.
“If we see you with a device you’re going to get the requisite ticket,” said Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley.
The ban doesn’t mean one can never talk on a cell phone in their car. Drivers can use their phone hands-free by mounting their smartphone in a stationary holder and then linking it to the car’s Bluetooth wireless capabilities to eliminate holding the device. Drivers can also opt to install a variety of hands-free mounts or integration devices on the dashboard or center console, which range in price.
The law also includes an exemption that allows the use of hands for activation and deactivation of the phone while driving. So, if you use the phone in the holder, you are allowed to turn it on and off.
Global positioning systems or other navigation devices, like smartphones using Google Maps, must use hands-free mounts as well. Music players such as iPods or MP3 players cannot be held by the driver and must be in a docking station, linked to the car’s Bluetooth system or any other hands-free mount.
Hands-free devices may not be fixed to the driver’s windshield, according to an already existing statute that prohibits items from obstructing the driver’s vision, including air fresheners or global positioning system mounts.
Also, the new law applies only to the driver of the vehicle.
Furthermore, under the law, drivers may use cell phones to communicate in emergency situations. Drivers also may use their phones while legally parked and out of traffic. Pulling over to use a cell phone in the emergency lane on an interstate highway is not an emergency, authorities say, and therefore a violation of the law.
At any given moment, 660,000 people in the United States are talking on a cell phone while driving, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s 660,000 too many distracted drivers, says Glen Button, director of enforcement at the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles.
“People should focus on the business at hand,” he said. “And that is if you’re the driver of a car, your responsibility is to drive safely.”
With the new handheld device ban, which was signed by Gov. Peter Shumlin in June, Vermont joins 12 states and the District of Columbia in banning such devices while driving.
The new law has been enacted after a series of public awareness campaigns. The Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles has updated its website with Frequently Asked Questions, created handheld device guides and run radio and print public service announcements. Forty-six signs reminding drivers to keep both hands away from their phones will be installed around Vermont, including at border crossings and on interstate highways in Vermont.
In August, the governor’s office conducted a traffic safety survey that included a question about familiarity with the new state law. At the time of the survey, 78 percent of respondents said they had some level of awareness.
Button said he expected law enforcement officers to be able to catch violators with the naked eye.
“We’re confident that law enforcement will be looking for clear-cut violations of the law,” he said. “I would suspect that the majority of infractions will be someone using the cell phone either in their hand dialing a number or to their ear having a conversation.”
According to the most recent data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 33,561 people were killed in car crashes on American roads in 2012, and 10 percent of those fatalities resulted from an accident caused by some kind of a distraction. The Vermont DMV has recorded 32 highway fatalities so far this year, though it did not record whether any of those were due to distracted driving. This year, law enforcement will use updated incident reports that allow officers to indicate if the driver was distracted before crashing. The goal of the new forms, according to the DMV’s Button, is to allow officers to more accurately assess the possible cause of a crash.
The new law makes driving while using a hand-held device a primary offense, giving an officer cause to pull over a driver. This is unlike the seatbelt law, which an officer can enforce only after pulling over a driver for suspecting an additional, primary violation.
Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel said on Thursdaythathis department hadn’t yet issued any tickets or even pulled anyone over for illegally driving with a hand-held device, but he and the other officers on the force in Vergennes are on the lookout.
“It’s going to have to be a learned skill,” he said of being able to spot someone who might surreptitiously dialing a cell phone. “We pay attention to people and vehicles and the people that operate them. We’re going to have to be vigilant and look for that.”
Middlebury Police Chief Hanley said officers are already familiar with the 2010 anti-texting law that made texting while driving illegal. The new law, he said goes one step further.
“It’s something we’re used to looking for,” he said.
The penalties for violating the new law include:
• A fine of $100-$200 for a first violation and $250-$500 for a second or subsequent violation within any two-year period.
• A person convicted of violating the hands-free law while operating within a designated work zone in which construction, maintenance, or utility personnel are present will have two points assessed against his or her driving record for a first conviction and five points assessed for a second or subsequent conviction.
Ultimately, the goal is to make Vermont roads safer, according to the DMV’s Button.
“We think the law will have a positive influence on highway safety,” he said. “If you’re reducing the distractions, that allows the driver to focus on their primary responsibility, driving safely.”
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