Legislators and victims plead for tougher distracted driving law

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By Katja Timm/ Capital News Service

Teary-eyed parents and supporters of legislation to curb distracted driving filled a small room at the Capitol, some wearing neon yellow traffic vests in solidarity as they offered emotional testimony.

Others held framed pictures of loved ones who died in distracted driving crashes. The press conference was to advocate for HB 1811, introduced by Del. Christopher Collins, R-Frederick. Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland, is sponsoring a companion bill, SB 1341, in the Senate.

On Wednesday, the Senate Courts of Justice Committee approved Stuart’s bill on a 13-2 vote with bipartisan support. A co-sponsor of that measure, Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, also attended Thursday’s press conference.

Jennifer Smith, whose mother died in a traffic accident caused by a distracted driver, was among the speakers. Smith tearfully read a letter aloud from another mother whose young son was killed when a driver ran over his stroller.

“Every day, I watch drivers too busy on their smartphones to pay attention to their surroundings,” Smith read from Mindy Shoal’s letter. “Each time I see them, I feel the impact of that SUV ripping my son’s stroller out of my hand as I was helpless to stop one from killing my baby.”

Other stories shared were from a father who suffered brain trauma in a crash and a mother who lost her 19-year-old son.

Collins’ bill would expand current state laws regulating the use of a handheld device while driving. The current law prohibits only the reading of any email or text message and manually entering letters or text in the device as a means of communication, according to a summary by the Legislative Information System.

The legislation promotes a “hands-free” approach and would make it illegal for a driver to use any handheld device while operating a vehicle unless the device is specifically designed to allow hands-free and voice operation, such as using the speaker option on a cell phone. The measure would also require driver’s license examinations to include questions on distracted driving.

“As a former police officer, what’s so hard about enforcing the laws we have now is that I don’t know if you’re texting or Facebook-ing,” Collins said. “I can’t write you for Facebook-ing, but I can write you for texting.”

Advocates encouraged members of the House and Senate to pass the legislation in order to “defend and protect” Virginians.

A subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee last week recommended approval of Collins’ bill. The full committee has scheduled the measure for consideration Friday.

Stuart’s bill may go to the Senate floor on Monday.

If neither bill wins approval in the Senate or House by Tuesday, the issue likely will be dead for the legislative session.