- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 7, 2014

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Drivers would be prohibited from using hand-held cellphones and other electronic devices starting in October, under a bill approved by the Vermont House on Wednesday.

The Senate is expected to concur Thursday, and a spokeswoman for Gov. Peter Shumlin said the governor is likely to sign the measure, although he has expressed skepticism about the bill.

“Governor Shumlin wanted to ensure the bill made sense for Vermont, wouldn’t increase Vermonters’ insurance rates, or harm their driving records,” spokeswoman Susan Allen said in a statement. “He appreciated the Legislature’s willingness to compromise on this bill, and expects to sign it.”

The version of the bill a legislative conference committee agreed upon would fine violators $100 to $200 for a first offense and up to $500 for subsequent violations. It would allow the use of voice-activated cellphones and similar devices as long as they were bracketed in a stationary location in the vehicle.

Unlike most driving offenses, violating the ban would not mean points against the driver. Under state law, accumulating 10 points within a two-year period can result in the suspension of the person’s driver’s license.

The bill is meant “to keep the public safe. Get off the phone and drive,” said Rep. David Potter, D-Clarendon, a member of the conference committee that drafted the final version.

Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, who says she became interested in the issue when her daughters began driving, said the bill is about saving lives.

New Hampshire lawmakers passed a similar ban Wednesday and sent the measure to Gov. Maggie Hassan.

In Vermont, Shumlin has often said he was cool to a cellphone ban. “You can’t legislate common sense,” he has said repeatedly. But his objection to a ban appeared to weaken in recent weeks in the face of strong support among lawmakers.

Democratic Sen. Richard Sears, of Bennington, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, is among opponents of the ban. He says he would like to see a law that addresses the broader problem of distracted driving. He says many Vermonters will ignore the cellphone ban and the overall result of a law will be more police stops and more fines.

In other business, conference committees worked to resolve differences on a number of bills as lawmakers aimed for adjournment Saturday for the year. Business still pending included an agreement on a general fund budget for fiscal 2015, an economic development package, and a measure to speed up the process of getting a court order to medicate patients with mental illness against their will.

Late Wednesday, Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia and chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said a deal on a general fund budget had not yet been reached, but said she was not ready to concede the Saturday deadline would be impossible to meet.

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