Local law enforcers are ramping up efforts to crack down on distracted driving in a campaign Vermont is calling “Connect to Disconnect.” Drivers will see an increased police presence along Route 7 through Monday, April 15. The effort is a high-visibility campaign in honor of National Distracted Driving Awareness month.
“There will be an aggressive enforcement of law in order to save lives,” Bill Jenkins, a law enforcement liaison at the Vermont State Highway Safety Office, said at a press conference, Thursday.
Nationwide, around 20,000 people died in crashes involving a distracted driver between 2012-17, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In Vermont, there were about 957 crashes caused by distracted drivers between 2013-17.
State law prohibits handheld phone and electronic device operation while behind the wheel -- even at a red light.
State penalties for using a handheld electronic device while operating a motor vehicle include: fines and waivers totaling $162 for the first offense and $392 for a second offense. For texting, fines and waivers total $230 for the first offense and $479 for a subsequent offense. There are also points assigned against drivers’ records for these violations, with first-time texting offenses carrying 5 points, Jenkins said.
For Vermonters under the age of 18, it is illegal to use a portable electronic device while driving, even with hands-free technology. But just because there is a law in place does not mean teens follow it.
According to State Police Sgt. Jay Riggen, 50 percent of high schoolers who responded to a recent Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey said they have texted while operating a motor vehicle. Handheld cell phone use is highest among drivers ages 15-29, Jenkins added.
“When you are behind the wheel set an example for your friends and family,” he said, adding passengers should encourage their loved ones to refrain from distracted driving.
At the press conference, county sheriffs, local departments and state law enforcement gathered to promote safe driving habits. They offered tips including: pulling over in a safe, legal location to answer text messages, asking a passenger to serve as “designated texter,” or stowing electronic devices in glove boxes and trunks to avoid the temptation all together.
“If you’re using your cell phone and driving, you’re selfish,” said National Highway Traffic Safety Administration traffic safety liaison Ted Minall. “Driving is a full-time occupation. It’s the only thing you should be doing when you get behind the wheel.”
Minall added that fatalities caused by distracted driving are “tragedies that are completely avoidable.”
To help avoid them, this weekend’s policing efforts included statewide monitoring of Route 7. Officers will employ tactics such as using police “spotters” on foot, in unmarked cars, and even from within buildings, to identify distracted drivers and phone ahead to waiting officers, Riggen said.
Route 7 was chosen for the campaign due to its traffic volume and span from the top of the state to the bottom.
Also present at the conference was AT&T external affairs regional director Ryan Clark. Clark spoke to a near decade-old “It can wait” campaign, which encourages drivers to commit to driving distraction-free. To date, over 36.5 million people have pledged allegiance to the campaign. Vermonters can take the vow and receive additional information about “It can wait” by visiting: https://www.itcanwait.com/pledge
“The time for warnings is over,” Riggen said. “The time for enforcement is now.”