RICHMOND, Feb. 18 -- A key House committee usually hostile to new driving restrictions approved a bill Friday that would ban drivers under age 18 from using cell phones on the road, even with a hands-free device.
The committee amended the proposal, however, to make violations of the law a secondary offense, meaning police could ticket gabbing teenagers only if they were pulled over for breaking another road rule.
Still, the law would make Virginia the third state to specifically target the distraction posed to teen drivers by cell phones, and lawmakers predicted that its approval by the Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee would pave the way for its passage by the House of Delegates next week and its adoption into law.
"Today was a pivotal day for the cell phone bill," said Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax), who is shepherding the measure in the House. "I'm hopeful this will alleviate a problem and save families heartache."
The measure, SB 966, was sponsored by Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun) and Sen. James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr. (R-Fairfax), who said they were concerned about a recent spate of teen driving fatalities in the Washington region. O'Brien called the vote a "significant accomplishment," even if police could not ticket for violations of the cell phone law alone. He said parents could warn children who use cell phones as their social lifeline that talking in the car is illegal and that they should not do it.
"We have something to tell the kids," he said. "When you're first starting to drive, your job is to drive."
The Senate passed the bill this month, and a spokeswoman for Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) said he supports the concept. The House committee's chairman and five other members voted against the bill, arguing that it intruded on personal freedoms.
"It's another example of government getting into our lives. We talk about the slippery slope, and this could open the door to the regulation of cell phones in cars," said Del. Beverly J. Sherwood (R-Frederick), chairman of the committee.
Since the start of the school year, at least 18 teenagers have died in traffic accidents in the Washington area, a deadly wave that has spurred legislative action on both sides of the Potomac River. In Maryland, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has made tightening restrictions, including increasing penalties for drunk teenage drivers, a centerpiece of his agenda this year. Other Maryland lawmakers have suggested barring cell phones, as well as restricting the number of teenage passengers whom new drivers can carry and increasing the amount of supervised driving required for a license.
Since 2001, Virginia has limited the number of passengers whom drivers under age 18 can carry. Teenagers must also spend 40 hours driving with a parent or guardian before getting a license, and new drivers are not allowed on the road between midnight and 4 a.m. Violations of each of those laws are secondary offenses.
The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended cell phone restrictions for teen drivers. Chairman Ellen Engleman Conners said Virginia's action would be a first step but expressed strong reservations about making the law a secondary rather than primary offense. She noted that the same committee also killed a bill that would have elevated Virginia's seat-belt law to a primary offense.
"Secondary enforcement of cell phone usage . . . while helpful, is not really addressing the concern head on," Conners said. "Why would you take a less strong approach when you're attempting to save lives?"