Virginia may ban holding a phone while driving. Should it apply when you’re stopped?

phone, car

What does it mean to be “driving” a car? How about “operating” one?

Those metaphysical questions became very real Thursday as Virginia lawmakers debated how to craft legislation making it illegal for drivers to hold a cell phone while behind the wheel.

The question at issue was whether the ban should apply when drivers are stopped for any reason, like waiting at a red light or sitting in traffic that’s not moving.

The General Assembly has come close to passing a hands-free driving bill several years in a row. But the proposal has failed due to late-breaking disagreements about the policy.

With Democrats now in control of the legislature, the proposal may have a better chance of passing this year. But the sensitivities surrounding a bill that could impact a huge number of Virginia drivers were on full display during an initial round of discussion Thursday in the Senate Transportation Committee.

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, one the bill’s chief skeptics in previous sessions, suggested that legislation allowing phone usage while stopped could give police officers a pretext to stop drivers and quibble over whether a vehicle was moving or not. 

“If you want to make this clear and you want to make it more pure, you just take that out,” Obenshain said. “You’re saying under this bill I can do all the texting I want as long as I don’t let my foot off the brake?”

He invoked prior concerns raised by the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, which had questioned whether the bill could lead to unwarranted harassment of black drivers.

“’Aren’t you concerned at all about the police officer who may stop somebody and say I saw you touching the phone before you came to a full stop?,” Obenshain said. “Nobody is going to be in a position to contradict that police officer’s testimony.”

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, the bill’s patron, said the state’s existing law — which only bars drivers from manually entering text into a phone while driving — raises similar potential for selective enforcement.

“They could say I saw them touching the phone with their fingers,” Surovell said.

Regardless of whether the legal terms “driving” or “operating” do or don’t apply to a vehicle that’s turned on but not going anywhere, another section of the bill says the ban only applies to “moving” vehicles.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said lawmakers should take common driver behavior into consideration.

“If we take that out altogether, we are setting up a lot of Virginians to violate the law,” McClellan said.

The bill advanced out of the committee with no change to the language allowing phone use while stopped.

Surovell and numerous highway safety advocates said the bill could dramatically cut down collisions caused by distracted driving under the current law that allows holding a phone as long as you’re not typing on it.

“Technically, it’s legal to play Angry Birds while you drive,” Surovell said. “Or chase Pokemon while you drive.”