Both chambers of the General Assembly passed legislation Tuesday that bans holding a cellphone for any reason while driving, ending years of debate and replacing a current ban on texting that police said was virtually unenforceable.
Lawmakers who opposed tightening restrictions said their views have changed as they’ve encountered more and more dangerous drivers on highways and roads.
“When you finally get around them and see, they’re texting,” said Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach. “This bill actually saves lives. I’m convinced of that.”
Under the legislation, hands-free use of phones is still allowed. So for instance, to use a GPS app legally, you could mount it to your dash.
Assuming it’s signed into law by the governor, it would go into effect in January 2020. A first violation would be punishable by a $125 fine. The fine increases to $250 for subsequent offenses and any violations in work zones.
The current law only banned texting and emailing while driving, but police have said they were unable to effectively enforce it because they had no way to prove what people were using their phone for when they were pulled over.
State police briefly tested a special enforcement detail in which officers would ride in an unmarked van and photograph driver’s phones in a way that showed the text bubbles. But they have not used the technique in years.
“We’re putting police officers in a precarious position, because they can’t tell if they’re texting or talking,” he said, describing watching three people in court “get off because there was no way to prove it unless there’s an admission of guilt.”
Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, was one of six senators who voted against the legislation, calling cellphone use while driving a matter of personal freedom.
“If I’m smoking a cigarette, I’m not in violation of the law,” he said. “If I’m eating a hamburger with both hands, I’m not in violation of the law. But if I take my phone and simply hold it, that’s a violation of the law.”
He said it would grant police too much leeway to pull people over they deem suspicious. Similar legislation died last year after members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus cited similar concerns that it would lead to increased traffic stops for driving while black.
This year, the caucus supported the legislation, which aims to address their concerns by requiring data collection and an annual report that includes demographic information of those stopped.