Virginia police to use an old law to increase fines for distracted driving

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 11, 2010

Shove that burger in your face, gloss your lips ruby red or send a quick text while behind the wheel, and it might cost you $250 in Fairfax County starting Monday.

Frustrated by a toothless law that the Virginia legislature passed last year, the Fairfax County Police Department is turning to an old law to wage war against distracted driving, and it won't just be illegal text messaging that gets people pulled over.

Although there's no law against eating, grooming or reading while driving through Virginia, you are required to "pay full time and attention" to your driving, officials said.

And it's that requirement on which police plan to rely because they see distracted driving as a serious problem, one bigger than just the issue of text messaging and cellphone use. Plus, there are so many loopholes in the state ban on texting that only 18 citations have been issued this year in a county of 1.2 million people, according to Fairfax police.

It's against the law to actively text, but if a driver tells the officer that he was looking up an address, dialing a phone number or using a GPS function, he's off the hook. What's more, the law that took effect last year makes texting a secondary offense, so an officer has to find another reason to stop a driver before issuing a texting ticket.

"It's really impossible for the officer to see what the driver is doing," said Capt. Susan H. Culin, commander of the Fairfax traffic division. "And if you're relying on the driver to tell you, you're probably not going to get a truthful answer."

The standard for failure to pay attention is lower than that of reckless driving, which involves endangering the "life, limb or property" of somebody else.

"All the officer needs to see is that your eyes were off and you're weaving," Culin said. "You could be out there on the road all by yourself."

The "failure" tickets traditionally have been issued to guilty parties in crashes, but Culin said they could be written to people who munch, apply makeup or message just as readily. The maximum fine is $250, compared with $20 for first-time offenders caught under the texting law.

Culin said police will deploy a number of vehicles to high-crash areas starting Monday, including sport-utility vehicles and trucks that provide officers with a high perch for looking down into the front seat of smaller cars.

With U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood planning a second "summit" this month of national safety experts and police since he launched his crusade against distracted driving, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute recently provided more ammunition about the dangers of cellphone use on the road.

The research center recorded drivers on the road, rather than using laboratory simulators, to see how the risk factor changed as they tried calling on cellphones or engaged in text messaging. They found that people who drive cars, SUVs and pickups were 2.8 times more probable to crash or have a near-crash when using their cellphones. Truck drivers were more probable to crash 5.9 times while calling and 23.2 times while texting.

The institute also concluded that use of a headset -- which is required in the District and will be in Maryland after Oct. 1 -- doesn't substantially reduce the risk of cellphone use.

The study did take issue with research that showed talking on a cellphone can be as distracting as dialing or texting. The report particularly refuted the contention that cellphone use is as dangerous as driving drunk.

"If talking on cellphones was as risky as driving while drunk, the number of fatal crashes would have increased roughly 50 percent in the last decade instead of remaining largely unchanged," the report said.

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