By Sam Isaacs
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Virginia drivers should get used to hitting “send” on their phones before they get behind the wheel of their vehicle. Beginning July 1, a new state law will crack down on texting while driving.
Gov. Bob McDonnell approved the law Monday but recommended that the General Assembly reduce the proposed fines for violators.
During its recent session, the General Assembly passed two bills to change texting while driving from a secondary offense to a primary offense. (That means police could pull a driver over if they see the motorist texting. Currently, you can be ticketed for texting only if you’ve been stopped for some other infraction.)
The legislation proposed increasing the fine from $20 to $250 for a first offense and $50 to $500 for a second offense. However, McDonnell recommended that the penalty be $125 for a first office and $250 for a repeat violation.
The assembly will consider that recommendation when it reconvenes for a one-day session on April 3.
During their regular session, lawmakers targeted texting while driving by passing Senate Bill 1222, sponsored by Sens. Thomas Norment, R-Williamsburg, and George Barker, D-Alexandria, and House Bill 1907, sponsored by Delegate Richard Anderson, R-Woodbridge.
“The governor believes that texting while driving is a dangerous activity and motorists should refrain from this, and all, distractions while behind the wheel,” according to a statement issued Monday by McDonnell’s office.
“The governor supports making texting while driving a primary offense, but has proposed to reduce the fines for convictions to bring them more in line with the penalties for comparable violations such as DUI and reckless driving. Additionally, the governor’s amendments will require that the Department of Criminal Justice Services make training available to state and local law enforcement agencies for enforcement of this new law.”
Barker has introduced bills targeting cellphone use while driving during the past five legislative sessions. In an interview, he addressed three key enforcement issues related to the new law.
What activities does the law prohibit?
According to Barker, the law covers only entering text into the phone to send a message or email or to use a search engine.
The law does not prohibit scrolling through songs on iTunes or even playing a game while driving. It’s still OK to use a GPS navigation unit or consult Siri, Apple’s intelligent personal assistant.
Barker said the legislation focused on a limited range of activities because a bill banning all phone use may have been too extreme to pass.
How will the law be enforced?
Police officers could pull a car over if they see or suspect that the driver is texting. The officer then may ask to see the driver’s phone to check if any texts have been sent within the previous couple of minutes. Motorists can choose to show their phone to the officer, or they can refuse and fight the ticket in court.
Barker said that with no visual evidence of texting, the case would come down to the officer’s word vs. the driver’s.
Can a driver text at a red light?
Technically yes, but Barker said it would be risky: An officer may be patrolling and catch the driver as soon as the light turns green, so it is better not to chance it.
Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.