Lawmakers hear personal plea for ban on hand-held devices

MONTPELIER -- Teenager Spencer Huntley loved music. His iPhone filled with songs was never out of his hand, and it was with him when he died.

Spencer's father, Rep. Mark Huntley, D-Cavendish, told his colleagues on the House floor Thursday that he is certain that Spencer was changing songs on his phone when his car crashed into a tractor trailer, killing him instantly. Huntley urged fellow lawmakers to support a law that would ban drivers from using hand-held electronic devices

"His use of a hand-held device is the only reason he's not here," Huntley said. "Do this for my son."

Huntley's House colleagues agreed, approving the bill on a preliminary roll call vote of 130-11 after discussing the measure for about an hour. If it wins final approval Friday the bill, which is opposed by Gov. Peter Shumlin, it will go to the Senate.

In an interview after the vote, Huntley said he wasn't sure whether drivers, young or old, would alter their behavior because of the law, but that it was worth a try.

"I know what killed him and I don't want it to happen to another family," Huntley said. "Maybe (someone) will pause for thought, maybe they'll decide it could wait, maybe they'll pull over."

The bill, H.62, requires that all Vermonters employ hands-free technology, such as Bluetooth, when using their cellphones while driving.

In the floor debate, several representatives wondered whether language in the bill was too broad in its restrictions on "portable hand-held electronic devices."

Some wondered whether that meant a driver couldn't use their garage door opener before coming to a complete stop.

Rep. Duncan Kilmartin, R-Newport, asked about the two-way radios used by delivery drivers. It remained unclear whether that was considered a hand-held device.

"I just wanted to get it out on the floor that there are issues," Kilmartin said after the vote. "There is still time for the Senate to address it if they choose." Kilmartin voted in favor of moving the bill forward.

Many more members spoke in support of the bill, saying it would give law enforcement the tools to enforce an existing ban on texting while driving and that the bill would improve public safety.

Rep. Tom Koch, R-Barre Town, said the law would make him stop using his hand-held phone while driving.

"These laws do change behavior," he said on the floor. "I always said that when it becomes illegal, I'll stop doing it."

Koch cited a report by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute that claims drivers distracted by making a cellphone call (reaching for the phone, finding a contact and dialing) triple their risk of being involved in a crash. That same report also says there is no increased risk from the act of talking on a cellphone while driving.

Another study indicated that a person's reaction time while using a phone is extended by the same amount as one's having a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08, which is the state's threshold for drunk driving.

Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, worried about giving law enforcement another reason to stop a driver so they could investigate them for a different offense. She voted against the bill.

Others cited the many other causes of distracted driving, such as eating, applying makeup, even reading, but Mark Huntley said lawmakers should do what they can.

Spencer Huntley was killed on Halloween in 2011 and Mark Huntley says since then he has heard of many similar cases of distracted driving.

"My story is not the only one," he said. "I travel and I've heard of it happening in Vermont, other parts of New England. Maybe this will add one less thing to the distractions."


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