Proposed law would stiffen penalty for texting while driving in Virginia

December 5, 2012

The Virginia State Crime Commission is supporting legislation in the upcoming General Assembly session that would make texting from behind the wheel reckless driving.

The proposed law endorsed Wednesday by the commission was pre-filed Tuesday by Del. Ben L. Cline (R-Rockbridge), who chairs the House Militia-Police-Public Safety subcommittee, and Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Mount Vernon). The legislative session begins Jan. 9.

Thirty-nine states and the District have banned texting while driving, and every state has considered some sort of distracted-driving law since 2000, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks this issue. Maryland and the District have banned all use of hand-held phones while driving.

According to the state Transportation Department, there were 63 deaths the first 10 months of the year in which the driver was texting before a car crash. Most involved drivers ages 18 to 30.

The legislation stems from the case of Jason Gage, an Alexandria man who opened a text message about the time he fatally struck a college student in Fairfax County. Gage was charged with reckless driving, but the trial judge ordered the charge 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.”

In Virginia, law enforcement officers can ticket drivers for texting if they have been pulled over for another offense. Every state surrounding Virginia makes texting while driving a primary offense, which allows law enforcement officers to stop drivers specifically for texting.

The measure proposed by Cline and Surovell would stiffen the penalty for texting while driving. It would make cellphone use for anything other than a call while driving a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by as much as a year in jail and a $2,5000 fine. The current penalty is a $20 fine.

The bill would apply not only to texting but also to 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.

Cline opposed new texting legislation as recently as this year’s General Assembly session, believing that the current law already allowed authorities to charge texters with reckless driving. The Gage case convinced him the law needed clarification.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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