As Yogi Berra would say, “it’s déjà vu all over again.” Last spring, the House passed H.147, an extensive highway safety bill which 1) created a ban on handheld electronic devices; 2) created a primary seatbelt law and 3) place additional restrictions on young drivers for night time driving, cell phone use, and carrying passengers. This was sent to the Senate where it remains unattended.
This winter, the Senate passed a brand new bill, S.280 with the narrow purpose of banning texting while driving. The “texting bill” went to House Judiciary which added back the broader language from H.147. This passed the House last week. I voted in support of the expanded House bill and here is why:
In 2006, the Strategic Highway Safety Plan was created following a near record-breaking year for highway deaths and incapacitating injuries. A report to the governor indicated that traffic crashes cost Vermont about $221 million each year in medical expenses, lost productivity, property damage and related costs. The report also indicated that each highway fatality cost the state close to $1 million. This was seen as a terrible toll in terms of human suffering and financial loss resulting from motor vehicle crashes. Something needed to be done.
In July, 2006, the Vermont Department of Health held a symposium on preventing crashes among young drivers bringing together key leaders in highway safety, transportation, public health and youth development. From a public health perspective, motor vehicle accidents were found to be the most serious and the leading cause of death among teenagers. According to the Vermont Safety Education Center, about two-thirds of crash deaths involving young drivers occurred when carrying teenage passengers. In fact, crash risks were found to increase incrementally with one, two, three or more passengers and the risk was three times higher when driving three or more passengers. A second finding from VSEC indicated that four out of every ten teen accidents occur between 9 pm and 6 am with midnight to 2 am being the most deadly. A third finding revealed that cell phone use and teen drivers, new to driving and vulnerable to distraction, was a very bad mix.
As for seatbelt use, crashes involving unrestrained persons cost 55% more than restrained persons and these accidents are not born by the victims alone. About 74% of these costs are born by society thereby blunting the “personal freedom” argument. Vermont currently has a secondary seatbelt law meaning a person must first be stopped for a primary office, such as speeding, and can then be given a ticket for not wearing a seatbelt. In addition, states with primary seat belt laws tend to see 10% more use. Law enforcement officials backed this change, noting the secondary law was confusing.
There are certainly arguments that talking on a cell phone is just one of many distractions such as adjusting CD’s, and attending to children. Questions also remain as to whether hands-free usage while driving is really any safer than handheld; however a total ban is unlikely. Like cup holders, cell phone usage while driving is here to stay. That handheld usage is more easily enforced and hands-free allows drivers to keep two hands on the wheel were compelling arguments in support of this bill.
It is unlikely the Senate will accept this broader version and the bill will end up in a smaller committee of conference to reconcile the differences. I would expect the hugely popular texting ban to remain, however the future of the primary seatbelt law, use of handheld electronic devices and young driver restrictions remains unclear.