Virginia lawmakers voted this week to prohibit drivers from using handheld mobile devices while behind the wheel, a major tightening of an existing ban against texting while driving as new research shows distracted driving remains a persistent problem.
With passage of legislation by both houses of the General Assembly, Virginia joins Maryland, the District and other states nationwide in banning the handheld use of cellphones while driving.
Supporters say they expect the legislation to clear final procedural votes and be signed into law. Fines would be $125 for the first offense and $250 for the second and subsequent; the law would take effect Jan. 1.
Existing law was “impossible to enforce and also continued to make it legal to chase Pokémon, play ‘Angry Birds’ or make Snapchat videos while driving,” said state Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), one of the bill’s sponsors. Driving around Virginia, it feels like “every other person driving has a phone in their hand,” he said, and the ban will raise awareness about the dangers of succumbing to such distractions.
The Virginia ban leaves room for drivers to look at their screens, including GPS, and to handle their phones when at a stop light. The precise language is: “It is unlawful for any person, while driving a moving motor vehicle on the highways in the Commonwealth, to hold a handheld personal communications device.”
Bans across the country “have resulted in long-term reductions in handheld phone use and drivers in ban states reported higher rates of hands-free phone use and lower overall phone use compared with drivers in non-ban states,” according to a review of numerous studies by researchers at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
However, the effect of such bans on crash totals “varied widely,” the researchers found. “Despite the proliferation of laws limiting drivers’ cellphone use, it is unclear whether they are having the desired effects on safety.”
New research into drivers’ cellphone use, and distractions more broadly, underscores the stubborn nature of the problem and reveals some crosscurrents in driver behavior as technology changes and people do different — and more — things with their phones.
A few years ago, safety researchers fanned out to four communities in Northern Virginia and counted the distractions they found among 14,000 drivers who passed by. They repeated the test last year with 12,000 drivers.
What they found added new complexities to a long-running narrative in auto safety — that cellphone use is a rapidly growing problem on U.S. roads. The number of people holding cellphones was actually down significantly from 2014 to 2018 among the Virginians they tracked. The number of those talking on their phones fell slightly as well, though not enough to be statistically significant.
But at the same time, among the people holding their phones, more were seen “manipulating” their devices, including poking, pressing, typing or otherwise manually interacting with them, which is particularly dangerous. That increase in phone manipulation probably resulted in hundreds of additional deaths between 2014 and 2017, the researchers found, though they noted that that represented only a fraction of the thousands of additional deaths over that period.
According to the study, written by David Kidd, of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and Neil K. Chaudhary, of the Preusser Research Group, the percentage of people seen holding, talking on or manipulating cellphones fell slightly from 2014 to 2018, from 11.2 percent to 9.7 percent.
“Although phone use is often considered synonymous with distracted driving, the prevalence of this behavior has not increased since 2014, but instead decreased 10 percent between 2014 and 2018. The reduction in phone use was not statistically significant but is consistent with declines” during daytime hours found by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, according to the study, released in December.
The researchers also found several nondigital distractions among Virginia drivers, including shaving, flossing, nose picking, hair brushing or habitual hair twirling; newspaper and book reading; and singing, eating and cigarette lighting, among others. Researchers said those behaviors also should be addressed in campaigns targeting phone use while driving.
“The takeaway is cellphone use continues to be a source of distraction among drivers, but there are many other things that distract drivers on the roadways,” Kidd said.
“It means that it’s not getting better,” Chaudhary said. “It’s a bad situation and the status quo is not good news.”
Overall, about 23 percent of drivers were seen engaging in at least one form of cellphone-related or other distraction in 2014 and 2018.
“It’s challenging to try to get people to continually pay attention to the driving task. It’s a very habitual and automatic thing,” Kidd said. “We can do a lot to help cope with the consequences of the mistakes people make.”
Among those measures are adding rumble strips and barriers on road sides and in the middle of highways, he said. Pushing for broader deployment of automatic emergency braking technologies would also help, he said.
And beyond distracted driving, large numbers of the 37,133 deaths on U.S. roads in 2017 could have been prevented by addressing other fundamental behaviors.
“Restraint use, speeding, alcohol use and impairment, those are the issues that have plagued the highway safety community for a long time, and they continue to,” Kidd said.
This story has been updated.