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."
But Andrew Supanich, 16, a sophomore at Stonewall Jackson High School in Prince William County, said he thinks that the ban is a bad idea but that if it does go forward, it should include adults. "It's not fair for them to take it away from teenagers when adults could be on the cellphone and could get in a car accident just as well," he said.
Supanich said he would use the phone for legitimate purposes. "If I was ever on my cellphone while driving, it wouldn't be just, 'I'm bored, and I want to talk to someone.' It would be if I was going to someone else's house and needed directions, or if my mom calls me to go to the grocery store," he said.
Several lawmakers said they were influenced by images of young drivers paying more attention to phone calls and text messages than the road. "It's a simple premise: Young people who do not have experience endanger not only themselves but other drivers," said Del. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria).
A few conservative lawmakers said they opposed the bill because parents -- not the state -- should be making rules for their children. Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott) said that there might be many items in a car that could distract a driver, such as a radio or purse. "I am the parent of a young driver, and the thing about this bill that concerns me is I can't call my daughter," he said. "There are a lot of times my wife and I would like to know where she is at."
Ebbin responded, "If parents have trouble reaching their kids, they should leave a message."
According to AAA Mid-Atlantic, which lobbied for the bill, the bans can greatly reduce the odds of a teenager being in an accident. A University of Utah study found that "young drivers who use cellphones at the wheel drive like the elderly -- with slower reaction times and an increased risk of accidents," according to AAA.
Kaine prohibits his 17-year-old son, Nat, from using a cellphone while driving. "It is the rule in the Kaine household," said Kevin Hall, spokesman for the governor. "Regardless of what he decides to do with this bill, the governor thinks this is a conversation that every parent should have with their teen driver."