DERBY — Three years ago, a driver who was texting ran Rep. Brian Smith off the road.
Ever since, the Derby Republican has been driven to stiffen the consequences for texting while driving, which is prohibited in Vermont.
Smith has promoted bills seeking bigger fines and loss of points of a driver’s license for three years, without success. This year, he’s determined to see it happen.
He has worked over the summer to make sure the bill will meet legal muster and gain support among fellow lawmakers.
Smith says he has the backing of key House leaders and fellow representatives. And he believes the community is behind it.
His goal in his bill is to toughen the current law enough so a first violation would get a driver’s attention. A second violation would mean the loss of a driver’s license, Smith says.
And anyone texting in a school or highway work zone would face double the fines and points lost, he said.
The Vermont State Highway Office’s behavioral safety unit online says Vermont’s hands free cell phone and texting laws have been in effect since October 2014.
The laws ban all drivers from using hand-held cell phones, pagers, PDAs, laptops, games or portable hand-held devices while driving. Drivers are not allowed to talk on a cell phone unless using a hands-free device, nor read, write or send text messages, email, or use the Internet while operating a motor vehicle on a Vermont roadway.
Drivers are not allowed to text, whether the vehicle is moving or stationary, the Vermont law states.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says 10 percent of the 37,133 deaths in fatal accidents on the nation’s highways in 2017 were caused by distracted driving.
In Vermont, there were 3,600 texting violations last year and 4,500 the year before that.
“There’s something wrong with that picture,” Smith said.
Smith had first hand experience with a texting driver.
“I was riding my motorcycle through Island Pond three years ago,” Smith said, when a vehicle came around the corner toward him.
“I got my bike on the side of the road. This person went by me and never even looked up. … If I had been in a car, I wouldn’t have been able to get over far enough.
“That has scared me about riding my motorcycle ever since then. I am more aware of it now and I see a lot of people texting and driving.”
“I’ve seen people older than me (texting), and I am not that young. It’s targeting anybody who is not looking where they are driving.”
The law in Vermont is good, he says. The consequences for violating those laws aren’t tough enough, he said.
There’s a minimum fine of $100 and a maximum of $200 for a first offense. A second or subsequent offense if $250 to not more than $500.
Under Smith’s bill, a first offense of texting would carry a minimum fine of $250 and four points off the driver’s license. A second offense would mean $500 minimum and five points.
Anyone who causes an accident resulting in injury, death or property damage due to a violation would face a minimum $500 fine and 10 points off their license.
The new bill has “very good support,” Smith said.
He also has a companion bill to study the use of textalyzer technology to aid law enforcement officers to search devices for recent uses with a search warrant. A report would be due by January 2021.
Vermont State Police officers opposed his past bills. Smith said they thought the fines were too harsh.
But he doesn’t agree.
“If I polled everybody in the House I would have overwhelming support on both sides. It’s a bipartisan bill. It’s for safety of Vermonters,” he said.
He says he has the support of the chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
“Sit at a red light anywhere and watch and see how many people are either on their phone or texting or not looking where they are driving,” Smith said. “This law has to become effective.”