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Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) on Monday proposed amending legislation to put a moratorium on the use of drone technology in Virginia until 2015.

McDonnell’s suggested amendments to House Bill 2012 and Senate Bill 1331 would allow for drone research at college and universities and would let law enforcement officials use drones for certain tasks, such as search and rescue.

These amendments “will allow law enforcement officials to use this developing technology to protect public safety while respecting individual rights of citizens and their expectations of privacy,” Gov. McDonnell’s press secretary, Jeff Caldwell, said in a statement to reporters.

The General Assembly will vote on McDonnell’s proposed amendments when it reconvenes for a one-day session next Wednesday. HB 2012 and SB 1331 were among more than 800 bills passed by legislators earlier this year. McDonnell had to veto or sign the measures by 11:59 p.m. Monday.

As passed by the House and Senate, the bills stated, “No state or local agency or organization having jurisdiction over criminal law enforcement or regulatory violations … shall utilize an unmanned aircraft system before July 1, 2015.”

Both bills allowed drones only in certain emergency situations, such as Amber Alerts (for missing children), Senior Alerts and search-and-rescue operations. McDonnell’s recommendations elaborated on when drones could be used during the moratorium.

Last Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia sent a letter to McDonnell urging him to sign the bills without any amendments. The group’s main concern is “wide scale and intrusive surveillance of our persons, homes, farms and businesses using unmanned aerial vehicles or systems.”

In a press release, Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, said, “Virginia needs time to develop sensible, commonplace restrictions that balance our freedoms with the benefits of drone technology.”

— Steffanie Atkins, Capital News Service

‘Siri, how will the texting law work?’

Virginia drivers should get used to hitting “send” on their phones before they get behind the wheel of their vehicle. Beginning July 1, a new state law will crack down on texting while driving.

Gov. Bob McDonnell approved the law Monday but recommended that the General Assembly reduce the proposed fines for violators.

During its recent session, the General Assembly passed two bills to change texting while driving from a secondary offense to a primary offense. That means police could pull a driver over if they see the motorist texting. Currently, you can be ticketed for texting only if you’ve been stopped for some other infraction.

The legislation proposed increasing the fine from $20 to $250 for a first offense and $50 to $500 for a second offense. However, McDonnell recommended that the penalty be $125 for a first office and $250 for a repeat violation.

The assembly will consider that recommendation when it reconvenes for a one-day session on April 3.

“The governor believes that texting while driving is a dangerous activity, and motorists should refrain from this, and all, distractions while behind the wheel,” according to a statement issued Monday by McDonnell’s office.

“The governor supports making texting while driving a primary offense, but has proposed to reduce the fines for convictions to bring them more in line with the penalties for comparable violations such as DUI and reckless driving.”

Sen. George Barker (D-Dist. 39), whose district includes southeastern Fairfax County, has introduced bills targeting cellphone use while driving during the past five legislative sessions. In an interview, he addressed three key enforcement issues related to the new law.

What activities does the law prohibit?

Barker said the law covers only entering text into the phone to send a message, email or to use a search engine. The law does not prohibit scrolling through songs on iTunes or even playing a game while driving. It’s still OK to use a GPS navigation unit or use voice commands to operate a device.

How will the law be enforced?

Police officers could pull a car over if they see or suspect that the driver is texting. The officer then may ask to see the driver’s phone to check if any texts have been sent within the previous couple of minutes. Motorists can choose to show their phone to the officer, or they can refuse and fight the ticket in court.

Barker said with no visual evidence of texting, the case would come down to the officer’s word vs. the driver’s.

Can a driver text at a red light?

Technically yes, but Barker said it would be risky. An officer might be patrolling and catch the driver as soon as the light turns green, so it is better not to chance it.

— Sam Isaacs, Capital News Service