Va. House To Teens: 'Hang Up And Drive'

By Tim Craig and Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 22, 2007

RICHMOND, Feb. 21 -- The Virginia House of Delegates approved a bill Wednesday that would prohibit teenagers from using their cellphones while driving, which safety advocates say would reduce accidents.

The Senate has approved a nearly identical measure, meaning that the cellphone ban proposal is likely headed to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who is expected to sign it, aides said. If Kaine does approve the ban, Virginia will join the District, Maryland and 11 other states that bar teens from using a phone while driving.

Under the bill, drivers ages 15, 16 and 17 would not be able to talk, send text messages or snap photos with a phone while on Virginia roads. The ban would also apply to hands-free devices but would allow teens to use a phone during an emergency.

The legislation originated with lawmakers in Northern Virginia.

"We are saying, 'Hang up and drive,' " said Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax).

Like Virginia's seat-belt law, the teenage cellphone ban would be considered a secondary offense, so an officer could cite a teenage driver only if he or she were pulled over for another moving violation.

Even so, safety advocates said that the 86 to 10 vote in the House was a milestone in Virginia, where legislators have historically been slow to embrace new traffic safety laws.

The proposal, sponsored by Sen. James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr. (R-Fairfax), gained momentum after a spate of fatal accidents involving teenagers on Washington area highways.

Though the accidents were not necessarily caused by teens talking on cellphones, they spurred a regionwide debate about teen driving safety. Maryland passed a series of teen driving bills two years ago. The District requires all drivers to use hands-free devices to talk on the phone. O'Brien resisted efforts in Virginia to make exceptions for teenagers using hands-free devices.

"It doesn't matter if the phone is in their hands or hands-free," O'Brien said. "The distraction for the teen is the same. They're taking their concentration off the road and giving it to a conversation during a period when they have zero driving experience."

Some teenagers were split on their opinion of the ban. Pape Diop, 17, a senior at Annandale High School in Fairfax County who often chats on the phone while he's behind the wheel, said he thinks the ban would make him and his friends safer drivers.

"I think it's pretty reasonable, because we do have a tendency to talk on our phones a lot, and a lot of accidents happen," Diop said. "Even if I'm in the car with an adult, I see it distracts them."


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