Texting from behind the wheel would constitute reckless driving under a bill submitted by two Virginia lawmakers, one of whom opposed new legislation on the matter earlier this year.
Del. Ben Cline (R-Rockbridge) and Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) announced Wednesday that they had submitted a bill to make it a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by as much as a year in jail and a $2,5000 fine, to use cellphones while driving for anything other than a call.
Under current law, texting while driving is a secondary offense, meaning that police can only issue a citation if they have stopped a driver for another violation. The current penalty is a $20 fine.
The Virginia State Crime Commission on Wednesday signaled its support of Cline’s legislation, said commission Chairman Del. Rob Bell (R-Charlottesville).
Cline, chairman of the House Militia-Police-Public Safety Subcommittee, opposed new legislation on texting as recently as this year’s General Assembly session. He contended that current law already allows authorities to charge texters with reckless driving.
Cline said he still believes that is the case. But he concluded the law needs clarification after hearing about the case of Jason Gage, an Alexandria man who struck and killed a college student in Fairfax County about the time he opened a text message. Gage was charged with reckless driving, but the trial judge ordered the charged dropped in August because, under Virginia law, texting while driving is a minor traffic infraction.
Surovell represented the victim’s family in a civil suit over the May 2011 crash.
“Most everyone has one of these,” Cline, holding his cellphone aloft, said at a Capitol Square news conference. “And most everyone drives. And the combination of the two has proven deadly.”
The bill would apply not only to texting, but playing games, reading e-mail and any other use of a “hand-held communications device” apart from making a phone call, which would remain legal in Virginia.
Asked whether they had considered also banning phone calls, Cline said: “We want a bill that can pass.”