While the two chambers approved bills with slightly different language, lawmakers say they expect to agree on legislation to send to Gov. Ralph Northam for signing.
Northam (D) has said he supports the measure, which would bring Virginia law in line with the District, Maryland and nearly two dozen other states.
“This is one of the few bills we are going to pass this session that will save lives,” said Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), lead sponsor of the Senate bill that passed 33-to-7 on Jan. 29.
The House bill passed 72-to-24.
Virginia law already prohibits texting and emailing while driving, but phone use is otherwise not restricted, except in highway work zones. Efforts to apply the ban more broadly last year were unsuccessful. Police say the law is difficult to enforce.
The measure approved this session includes exceptions for emergency vehicles, drivers reporting an emergency and those who are parked. Violators could be fined $125 for a first offense and $250 for a second or subsequent offense.
State lawmakers have wrestled with the issue several times in recent years, but this year, the measure received more bipartisan support.
Northam proposed a cellphone ban in his landmark transportation bill last month, calling it an important safety policy that would help reduce fatal crashes. Other proposals before the General Assembly this year would ban the use of handheld electronic devices in school zones.
“We were very close last year,” said Nancy Egan, a state government relations counsel at the American Property Casualty Insurance Association. “Our chances this year are much higher.”
Advocates with Drive Smart Virginia have been pushing for support for a #handsfreeva on social media, calling the proposal “lifesaving.”
According to state data, 827 people were killed in crashes in Virginia last year. Records indicate that distraction was a factor in 120 of those fatalities.
“This problem today is an epidemic,” Surovell said. “All you’ve got to do is look to your left and to your right when you are driving on the road. You will see somebody with a device in their hand, looking at it instead of paying attention to what they are doing.”
Because Virginia law doesn’t explicitly prohibit holding a smartphone while driving enforcement is difficult, officials say. Advocates say clearer language in the law is necessary to prohibit any use of such devices, whether for texting, video calling or looking at apps that can be distracting and deadly.
“The law that we have on the books is completely unenforceable,” Surovell said. He said police often don’t even try to pull over someone who is texting while driving because they can’t prove that they are doing it.
“It is absolutely critical that we pass this legislation,” he said.
Researchers with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute have concluded that motorists who use handheld electronic devices are more likely to crash than those who use hands-free technology to make calls while behind the wheel.
The problem is even more worrisome among teenagers, according to the National Safety Council, which says that young drivers have the highest incidence of using cellphones while driving and being involved in crashes. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration survey found 20 percent of drivers ages 18 to 20 said texting does not affect their ability to drive.
Still, Egan said, there’s also evidence that more Americans support laws targeting distracted driving.
“People are becoming more and more aware that distracted driving has become an epidemic,” she said. “If you are texting, you are distracted manually, visually and cognitively.”
Measures similar to the one approved in Virginia have been shown to decrease crashes and fatalities. A Georgia lawmaker this year attributed a decrease in traffic fatalities there to the passage of his state’s hands-free law in 2018. A 2017 report from the Georgia General Assembly noted that 13 of 15 states with cellphone bans had seen an average 16 percent decrease in traffic fatalities within two years after passing their laws.
In Virginia, proponents of the ban cite several cases in which motorists on phones have cost lives. In August 2016, police said, a man was looking at his phone when he struck a woman and her 5-month-old son crossing at an intersection in Leesburg. The infant was killed. In Chesterfield, police said a dump truck driver was texting before a crash that killed a paramedic last year.
“The time has come because the reality of it is this: People are so totally engrossed in their phones while they are driving cars that they are completely oblivious to the world around them,” Sen. Richard H. Stuart (R-King George) said in the Senate chamber last month. “That is a really dangerous recipe when you got a two-ton, three-ton, four-ton, five-ton automobile or truck that you are driving down the highway. . . . I hope we can finally make it into law.”