But the anti-texting measure is all but toothless. Drivers are still allowed to use their hands to make phone calls and get directions using a smartphone’s Global Positioning System capabilities. Any driver eager to avoid the fine and willing to dodge the truth can say he had the device in hand for a legal purpose.
“While this law is a step in the right direction, we still have a ways to go,” said Capt. Susan Culin, traffic division commander for the Fairfax County police. “It will still be very difficult for officers to determine if the vehicle operator is dialing their phone or accessing GPS, versus texting.”
Maryland simplified its law Monday, when lawmakers voted to allow police to pull over and ticket any driver seen with a cellphone in hand.
Highway-safety advocates have likened the campaign against distracted driving to earlier efforts against drunken driving and for seat-belt use. With U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood leading the charge, they believe that heightened public awareness to the issue will lead local lawmakers to gradually toughen laws.
That happened this year in Virginia. Maryland banned texting while driving several years ago and later prohibited all hand-held use of electronic devices.
But until Monday’s vote, it remained a secondary offense. Many drivers routinely ignored the ban.
The District, which does not allow hand-held use, issued almost 63,000 tickets for distracted driving over a five-year period ending in fiscal 2011.
“Virginia is a tough state [in which] to enact highway safety laws, so this new action is an important step,” said Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association.
“To be most effective, a hand-held ban is necessary. But this sends a message that texting and driving is dangerous. That’s critical.”
Even before the beefed-up Virginia law, Fairfax County police applied an existing law to ticket drivers.
Although they cited just 97 people for texting while driving over a three-year period ending in 2012, they issued 27,333 tickets to those who failed to “pay full time and attention” to their driving.
“We will continue to use [that] ordinance to address drivers who are driving improperly due to a distraction, oftentimes to include use of a cellphone, although we may not be able to determine if it’s texting,” Culin said. “Sometimes, though not often, people are honest with us about what they were doing.”
In 2011, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that cellphone use by drivers be prohibited.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has funded texting crackdowns in two cities and has initiatives underway in New York, Connecticut, California and Delaware. In a statement that acknowledged the Virginia loophole, the federal agency said, “While it is true that statutes in some states can pose challenges to enforcement, NHTSA’s experience with distraction enforcement shows that law enforcement officers are highly skilled at observing driver behavior.”
NHTSA determined that 5,474 people died and 448,000 were injured in 2009 in crashes in which distraction was involved.
“Distracted driving is a big problem, but it’s bigger than just phone use,” said Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an insurance-industry research group. “Even if a law were successful in stopping phone use and texting, it wouldn’t eliminate distracted driving.”