By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 12, 2008
RICHMOND, Jan. 11 -- Some Virginia lawmakers want drivers to take their thumbs off the keyboards and put them back on the steering wheel while cruising down Virginia's roads.
They are tackling the problem of drivers who send, read and write messages on cellphones, PDAs and BlackBerrys. It's a thoroughly modern distraction dubbed Driving While Texting or DWT.
The General Assembly, which began its 60-day session Wednesday, is considering a pair of bills that would ban texting while driving a car, bicycle, motorcycle, moped or even an electric wheelchair. Lawmakers in four other states, including Maryland, are considering similar proposals.
Virginia legislators have tried in recent years to ban handheld cellphone use by adult drivers but have not been successful. A year ago, they made it illegal for teenagers under 18 to talk, send text messages or snap photos with a cellphone while driving, but they can be cited only if they are stopped for another offense.
This year, supporters say they hope to push a bill that forbids at least some cellphone use, now that drivers are doing more than just talking behind the wheel.
"I frankly did not even realize that one could do that and drive,'' said Del. James M. Scott (D-Fairfax), who sponsored one of the bills. "But I learned quickly from my younger daughter, who assured me that it's very easy to do."
Lawmakers in several states are trying to keep up with the latest driver-distraction phenomenon by banning texting, or prohibiting all cellphone use, while driving.
In Maryland, where lawmakers also convened this week, Sen. Michael G. Lenett (D-Montgomery) has introduced a bill that would prohibit the use of hand-held phones by all drivers. Another proposal may be on the way that would cover only texting.
Texting is safety advocates' latest worry about driver distractions, which include eating, grooming and reading newspapers. Safety experts say the practice is even more prevalent in affluent, urban places such Northern Virginia, with its extensive cellphone service.
"It's sort of the issue du jour right now,'' said Matt Sundeen, a transportation analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks bills across the nation. "I'm sure we'll see more this year."
Six states considered anti-texting laws in 2007; Washington state and New Jersey passed laws, as did the city of Phoenix. Five other states and the District prohibit drivers from using hand-held phones while driving.
Virginia and Maryland have considered an outright cellphone ban for adult drivers almost every year since at least 2001. Maryland banned cellphone use for teens with learner's permits in 2005, and Virginia made it illegal for drivers younger than 18 in 2007.
Under the Virginia proposal, texting while driving would be a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $250 and court costs.
Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said it would be difficult to enforce the law because it's hard to peer into moving cars. But she said officers would be looking for the problems that often come from driver distractions, such as weaving or slowing down.
Joe Farren, spokesman for CTIA-The Wireless Association, said his organization does not oppose the ban. "We don't think anyone should text message while driving,'' he said. "We don't have a problem with that."
Lon Anderson, director of public and government affairs at AAA Mid-Atlantic, whose membership area includes Maryland and Virginia, said texting is different from talking on a cellphone and deserves special consideration.
"Texting belongs in its own category. It is extremely dangerous,'' he said. "There is no place for driving and texting."
The first reported accident caused by texting may have been in Tennessee in 2005, when a man died after he lost control of his pickup truck and plunged down an embankment. In Colorado that same year, a teenager who was texting while driving killed a bicyclist.
In June 2007, five members of a high school cheerleading squad were killed in New York, and police said they think the driver lost control while sending a text message.
Del. Joe T. May (R-Loudoun), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, where the bill is likely to be debated, said he agrees that texting while driving involves multiple physical and mental tasks but that he wants to look at accident data before he decides whether to support the bill.
Texting while driving has become popular only in recent years, and few studies specifically measure that distraction.
A 2007 study by Nationwide Mutual Insurance estimated that 73 percent of drivers use phones while driving and 20 percent text while behind the wheel. The texting number goes up to 37 percent for drivers ages 18 to 27.
A national survey conducted by AAA and Seventeen magazine in July found that 61 percent of teens admit to risky driving habits. Of that number, 46 percent said they text while driving.
"Obviously, text messaging is a huge distraction. No one could dispute that,'' said Janet Brooking, executive director of Drive Smart Virginia, a statewide nonprofit advocacy group. "We could save a lot of lives with these bills."