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States Mull Bans On Driver Distractions

Put down the flute and keep your eyes on the road.

And forget about sipping that cup of coffee on the way to work, or smoking a cigarette on the way home. In some states, it could soon be illegal — if it isn't already.

Emboldened by the passage of cell phone bans for drivers in some communities, states are turning their attention to other things that drive motorists to distraction.

Vermont lawmakers are considering a measure that would ban eating, drinking, smoking, reading, writing, personal grooming, playing an instrument, "interacting with pets or cargo," talking on a cell phone or using any other personal communication device while driving. The punishment: a fine of up to $600.

Similar bills are under consideration in Maryland and Texas, and Connecticut has passed one that generically bans any activity that could interfere with the safe operation of a motor vehicle.

"Cell phones attracted people to this issue," said Matt Sundeen, a transportation analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Now that people are more focused on distracted driving issues, they're beginning to talk about the broader range of distractions."

For the sponsor of the Vermont bill, the motivation came from his own observations.

"What finally pushed me over the edge was when I was at a stop sign and somebody opposite me was trying to navigate around the corner with a cell phone to the ear in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and she wasn't doing very well," said Republican state Rep. Thomas F. Koch.

He said his wife recently saw a driver playing the flute, which led him to include the instrument ban in his bill.

"There are a lot of bad habits out on the road. This isn't just for drivers' own good. This is to protect the other people on the road," he said.

Often, they need protection:

  • In Illinois, a bicyclist was killed by a driver who had been downloading cell phone ring tones while behind the wheel last September.
  • In Westminster, Calif., a 7-year-old boy was struck and killed by an SUV whose driver lost control as he was trying to reach a cell phone and plowed into a family at a bus stop Nov. 29, authorities said.
  • In Spokane, Wash., a trucker who was allegedly using a cell phone crossed a highway median and struck another truck head-on, killing five children, in 2005.
  • In Athens, Ala., a woman lost control of her car while reaching for a ringing cell phone and crashed into a church last month.

    Distracted drivers were involved in nearly eight out of 10 collisions or near-crashes in a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute that was released last year by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

    Young drivers are some of the worst offenders. A study of more than 5,600 students released last month by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm Insurance Co. reported that nearly 90 percent had seen friends drive while talking on cell phones and that half saw drivers playing hand-held games, using listening devices or sending text messages.

    Jeff Rogers, 44, of Barre, filling up his pickup at a gas station Thursday, said the Vermont bill is "going a little too far."

    "I can understand the cell phone thing," he said. "But the rest of it, how are they going to enforce that?"