Distracted driving — led by drivers who text while driving — again is at the forefront of legislative concerns for the 2013 Virginia General Assembly.
The Virginia State Crime Commission is supporting legislation that will make texting while driving a Reckless Driving offense, making it a misdemeanor charge.
Leading the effort is state Del. Benjamin L. Cline (R-Dist. 24), who has drafted House Bill 1360, and Del. Tom Rust (R-Dist. 86), who has drafted House Bill 1357.
Cline’s bill provides that driving while simultaneously using a handheld communications device for something other than verbal communication constitutes driving a motor vehicle that is not under proper control, and therefore punishable as reckless driving, a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of $2,500.
Under current law, the more specific offense of "texting while driving" only incurs a $20 fine and is a secondary offense.
Secondary offenses are those in which a law-enforcement officer must have cause to stop or detain a driver for some other violation, the primary offense, before issuing a citation for texting while driving, the secondary offense.
A 2011 fatal car accident in Herndon on Va. 7 is the impetus for Rust’s bill, which also aims to make texting while driving a primary offense.
“The first text was sent 20 years ago, and that has truly changed the way we communicate with each other for better or for worse,” he said. “In the case of a family from Herndon, it is for the worse. They lost their son to a traffic accident that was caused when a driver chose to text while driving and hit him on [Va.] 7. Although the driver was charged with reckless driving, the judge could not convict him of reckless driving because in Virginia, reckless driving can only be proven if the driver was drinking or driving at excessive speed.”
State Sen. Janet Howell (D-Dist. 32) also is drafting her own legislation to ban cell phone use altogether in school drop-off zones.
“I am working with legislative services right now to draft legislation that would incur a $250 penalty for violating this ban,” she said Thursday.
Distracted driving in Virginia is defined as anything that takes a motorist's attention off the road. It includes, but is not limited to, cell phone use such as talking or texting, eating, drinking or adjusting the radio while driving. This definition also includes excessive “grooming” while driving.
According to a study conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, of all cell phone related tasks — including talking, dialing, or reaching for the phone — texting while driving is the most dangerous.The study also reports that teen drivers are four times more likely than adults to get into car crashes or near crash events directly related to talking on a cell phone or texting, and that for every six seconds of drive time, a driver sending or receiving a text message spends 4.6 of those seconds with their eyes off the road.
“Stricter laws and penalties are certainly needed,” said Capt. Susan Culin, commander of the Fairfax County Police Traffic Division. “Enhanced penalties for texting are certainly a step in the right direction, but what would really help law enforcement would be laws that would eliminate the ability of drivers to hold a cell phone at all while operating a vehicle. Officers have a difficult time telling what exactly a driver is doing with a phone in their hand, and there are so many loopholes in the law right now that officers have a difficult time enforcing anti-texting laws.”
For now, Howell — who serves as vice chair of the Virginia Crime Commission — said that getting texting while driving classified as a primary offense in Virginia is the first order of the day.
“We want a complete ban on texting while driving,” she said. “It is our goal to make the act of texting while driving a primary offense.”