By Kathleen Shaw/ Capital News Service
Drivers in Virginia would face penalties for using a phone behind the wheel under legislation that Gov. Ralph Northam has amended and sent to the General Assembly for approval.
“The time has come for the commonwealth to implement an effective and fair law to combat distracted driving,” Northam said. “Too many families have lost loved ones as a result of a driver paying more attention to their phone than to their surroundings. This bill, as amended, will be a significant step forward in promoting traffic safety across the commonwealth.”
The governor amended SB 1768, sponsored by Sen. Montgomery “Monty” Mason, D-Williamsburg.
As approved by the House and Senate last month, Mason’s bill would prevent drivers from holding a handheld personal communications device in highway work zones. Violators would face a mandatory $250 fine.
Northam announced Tuesday that he has revised the bill to extend beyond work zones and prohibit distracted driving on all Virginia roads.
The General Assembly will consider the governor’s recommendation when lawmakers reconvene April 3.
Current Virginia law prohibits drivers from texting or emailing on the road; however, it is legal to hold a cellphone to check social media and make phone calls. Northam said curbing Virginia’s distracted driving death rates is a priority for his administration.
“Virginia’s traffic fatalities have risen every year since 2014,” Mason said. “Distracted driving caused by cellphone use — whether it’s dialing, texting or checking email — is clearly the reason. I’m proud to be a part of a safety measure that will undoubtedly save the lives of many Virginians.”
The fight against distracted driving in Virginia is not a new battle for legislators.
During this past legislative session, two bills — HB 1811, sponsored by Del. Chris Collins, R-Frederick, and SB 1341, introduced by Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, — sought to make it illegal to drive while holding a cellphone.
Both bills died when a conference committee could not agree on legislative language during the session’s final days.
In amending Mason’s legislation, Northam recommended that organizations such as DRIVE SMART Virginia and the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police develop resources for law enforcement agencies and the general public about the law against using a phone while driving.
The governor also wants to require annual reports on distracted driving violations and the demographics of motorists cited for such offenses.
“The governor’s amendments address concerns about disparate enforcement against drivers of color and will help ensure this measure is being enforced appropriately across the state,” said Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond.
April will be Virginia’s 13th year of recognizing Distracted Driving Awareness Month. According to the American Automobile Association, 131 people died in 2018 from distracted driving in Virginia. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nine people die daily in the U.S. from roadway accidents involving a distracted driver.
Collins and Stuart both issued statements supporting Northam’s amendment to SB 1768.
“We see too many traffic crashes and tragedies caused by distracted driving,” Collins said. “This is affecting everyone, from road workers to law enforcement officials and first responders trying to keep us safe, to highway workers who are maintaining and improving our roadways. It’s time for us to take action to protect those using our roads in order to save lives in the commonwealth.”
Stuart added, “It has come to the point where people are so totally engrossed in their phones that they are almost oblivious to the world around them. And that’s just a dangerous recipe on the highway.”