Of the 800-plus bills that Virginia’s General Assembly passed last winter, few will get more attention from Virginia’s drivers than the one involving texting while driving.
As of July 1, police officers across the state no longer need a second reason to pull over and ticket texting drivers. Now a primary offense, the fine for texting while driving is $125 for first-time violators. The penalty increases to $250 with each subsequent offense. Prior to Monday, first-time texters were hit with a paltry $20 fine while second-timers got off the hook for $50.
That’s welcome news for anyone who drives, bikes, jogs or walks along roads in Fairfax County. A recent Virginia Tech study concluded that while eating or talking on a phone while driving triples the risk of an accident, texting while driving increases the risk by about 23 times.
Previously, police could only cite drivers who were originally stopped for another reason — speeding or driving with expired tags, for example. Under the new legislation, drivers can be convicted not only for texting, but also for reading a text or email, or sending an email.
Given those parameters, most Fairfax-based commuters probably witnessed half a dozen violations on their way to work this morning.
In a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year, 31 percent of people surveyed said that in the past 30 days, they had read or sent at least one text message while driving. Sixty-nine percent of drivers ages 18 to 64 reported that they had talked on their cell phone while driving within the 30 days before they were surveyed.
The consequences for those phone-related distractions get more dire by the day. According to Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles, distracted driving killed 122 people and injured 14,722 others in 2011. That translates to approximately 16 percent of state’s fatal crashes and more than 20 percent of injury crashes.
National statistics aren’t any better. According to Don’t Text and Drive, 11 teens die every day from texting and driving, which also causes 1.6 million accidents and 330,000 injuries every year.
Virginia lawmakers deserve credit for revisiting the subject last winter and emerging with tougher penalties, but we’re not convinced a $125 fine is going to change everyone’s behavior.
Plenty of states across the country have upped the ante against people who text and drive. Utah fines drivers $750 for texting while driving. If you get into an accident while texting and driving in Utah, you face serious jail time (up to 15 years) and up to a $10,000 fine.
In Illinois, texting drivers face penalties of up to $1,000.
Wisconsin fines a first-time texter $400, which tops the $300 fine the state doles out to first-time drunken drivers.
Much like seat-belt- and DUI-related laws evolved over a 30-year period, we suspect texting laws will follow a similar path. It begins with public awareness and grows through consisent, fair enforcement.
Part of that process also involves doling out meaningful fines. A $250 penalty for first-time offenses and a $500 hit for second-timers does not seem out of line.
Nor does amending the DMV’s point system to include a three-point penalty for first-time offenses and a six-point penalty for each subsequent infraction. Lawmakers would also be wise to tie an 8-hour driver improvement program to texting offenses.
Tougher laws won’t completely rid Fairfax County’s roads of texting, but they will result in more people putting their phones aside and keeping their eyes on the road.
That would be a win for all of us.