Virginia Could Make Texting Behind the Wheel a Major Traffic Offense
Texting while driving in Virginia is already against the law. It’s punishable by a ticket with a small fine. But the Virginia State Crime Commission wants the act to be considered the same as reckless driving.
Under proposed legislation endorsed by the Virginia State Crime Commission, texting while driving would be placed under the state’s definition of reckless driving. Reckless driving is a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. As the law stands now, texting and driving is a secondary offense. That means you can only be ticketed for it if you’ve been stopped for a separate violation, such as failing to stop at a stop light. The first texting offense carries a $20 fine. All subsequent offenses carry a $50 fine.
Organizations such as DriveSmart, a driving-safety education organization, and AAA Mid-Atlantic, a motorist-advocacy group, have long lobbied for stronger texting while driving laws in Virginia. But the issue came to the forefront after a judge in Fairfax County ruled that a texting driver involved in a fatal accident could not be convicted of reckless driving because the state legislature passed a law making texting a lesser crime.
Delegate Robert Bell, chairman for the Virginia State Crime Commission, remains perplexed by that particular ruling, but said “if that’s something that’s happening in the court, we need to make sure texting is covered under reckless driving.”
Under the proposed legislation, drivers can only use their cellular phones to make voice calls. Drivers in Virginia could be stopped and charged with a misdemeanor if they use their phone for anything other than verbal communication while on the road.
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell stated on his Richmond-area radio show that he believes texting and driving is already covered under the state’s reckless driving statute, but that he will seriously consider the proposal.
Advocates of stricter laws against texting and driving point to numerous studies demonstrating the dangers of using a cellular device while operating a vehicle.
A report released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration states that the risk of crashing is 23 times higher while texting than while driving undistracted. AAA cites studies showing that approximately 80 percent of accidents involve driver distractions or inattention within 3 seconds of the crash. Sending or reading one text message takes the driver’s eyes off the road an average of 4.6 seconds.
Public support against texting and driving is also high. According to a 2011 survey conducted by AAA, 94 percent of respondents agreed that texting or e-mailing while driving was unacceptable and 87 percent supported laws against reading or typing on cellular devices. 79 percent supported making texting while driving a primary offense.
But the same AAA survey also found that 33 percent of participants admitted to using their cell phones for purposes other than making calls. According to the survey, many of those in favor of stricter penalties for texting while driving actually used their mobile devices while driving a car.
The General Assembly hopes that by expanding the definition of reckless driving, it will prevent those 33 percent from texting and driving on Virginia’s roadways.
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