With additional reporting by COURTNEY LAMDIN
The state’s law prohibiting driving while using a cell phone has been in place for a year, but law enforcement officers are still seeing and stopping drivers for distracted driving.
“A substantial number of drivers have either chosen to ignore the law or plead naiveté,” St. Albans Police Chief Gary Taylor said. “I have stopped half a dozen personally in the last month for just flagrant violations.”
Since January 1, SAPD officers have stopped 101 drivers for distracted driving, issuing 76 tickets and 25 warnings.
In Milton, the number is much fewer: Officers have issued 14 written warnings and six tickets in the same period, Chief Brett Van Noordt’s data shows.
Statewide 1,404 distracted driving tickets were issued since January 1, according to data from the Vermont Judicial Bureau. Another 26 were issued for cell phone use in a work zone, and 23 junior operators were ticketed for cell phone use.
The fine for distracted driving is $162 with no points for the first offense. Work zone violations carry a two-point demerit and a $230 fine.
As of July 1, a loophole in the law allowing cell phone use at stop signs and red lights was closed. The automobile, with or without engine running, must be pulled off the road in a safe area.
Hands-free use of phones in vehicles is permitted when the phone is in a stationary mounting device. Attaching it to the windshield, however, is not permitted under the law.
“We try to get our officers here to stop for that violation,” Van Noordt said of distracted driving. “We feel it’s very important.”
Milton police typically educate local drivers about these laws at the annual National Night Out, a nationwide event to build police-community partnerships. MPD will again bring its golf cart texting-and-driving demo, Sgt. Paul Locke said.
Distracted driving is a factor in 24 percent of major crashes, with phone use the leading cause, said Matt Davidson, head of the Governor’s Highway Safety Commission.
“Distracted driving is dangerous, and data shows that,” Davidson said.
Drivers born before the days when nearly everyone carried a cell phone were taught to wear seatbelts and not to drink and drive, but not about the dangers of cell phone use while driving, explained Davidson.
“We have to do an extensive public outreach campaign,” he said.
When the law first went into effect, the state did a public education campaign that led to decreased use, but when the outreach tapered off, the rate of cell phone use increased again, Davidson said.
Taylor said his office is doing what it can to alert drivers: “We’re certainly making a concerted effort to get the message out,” he said.
Davidson urges anyone who needs to make a phone call or read or send a text to pull off the road.
“At 65 mph, it only takes three seconds to travel the length of a football field,” Davidson said. “Think of how far you can travel in three seconds.”