How effective is Vermont's new texting and driving law?
Colchester, Vermont - August 12, 2011
One text message changed the lives of two Colchester women. Police say phone records reveal that Emma Vieira, 18, was texting when she hit a pedestrian. Deborah Drewniak, 52, is still in critical condition. The tragedy now has some lawmakers rethinking the current legislation.
"What can we do better? What can we do differently that's going to really make a difference in stopping this texting and driving? It's very dangerous," said Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Chittenden/Grand Isle counties.
Mazza heads the transportation committee. He says he doesn't support a complete ban on cellphones while driving, like in New York and Massachusetts, but he does think this accident highlights a need for stiffer penalties.
"Evidently a fine doesn't work because a fine can be paid but you got to get their notice. And I think to get their attention you're going to have to probably suspend their license. And I'm not afraid to take that up for consideration," Mazza said.
"I would say it ranks with drunk driving," South Burlington Police Sgt. Shawn Demore said.
And police say enforcing the current law is challenging. Vermont's ban on texting while driving took effect last July. As of April, only 64 tickets have been issued to texting drivers.
"The only thing that is illegal is actually sending an email or a text message. Looking up a number in your phone or dialing a number is not illegal and it's very difficult to discern which someone is doing," Demore explained.
Even if they catch someone in the act it's hard to prove and only costs offenders $100. Emma Vieira's experience will be a little different. She is facing felony charges for her role in the accident.
"There's a fine line between ordinary negligence and gross negligence," Chittenden County Deputy Prosecutor Paul Finnerty said.
If this case goes to trial prosecutors will have to prove Vieira's choice to text went beyond ordinary negligence-- defined by the Supreme Court as a momentary distraction-- and instead falls within the realm of gross negligent operation; when someone knows an activity is dangerous and does it anyway.
"If you're texting and are involved in an accident that would be negligent operation. Whether it rises to the level of gross negligence or not depends on the facts in a particular situation," Finnerty explained.
The Supreme Court says that distinction is a question for the jury to decide. Vieira is due in court next week. If she goes to trial and is convicted she could face up to 15 years in prison.
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