By Sam Isaacs
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – The day after bills to crack down on texting while driving passed in both the House and Senate, a bipartisan coalition of legislators came together to urge their colleagues to complete the process of turning the measures into law.
“I’d like to thank everyone who has been a part of this group. We’ve never made it this far with these bills before,” Delegate Ben Cline, R-Amherst, said at a press conference Wednesday.
Cline introduced one of 10 bills this legislative session to impose stiffer penalties for texting while driving. The bills were filed by both Republicans and Democrats.
The House bills were combined into HB 1907, sponsored by Delegate Rich Anderson, R-Woodbridge. The House passed that bill, 94-4, on Tuesday.
Sen. Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg, filed an identical proposal in the upper chamber – Senate Bill 1222. It cleared the Senate on a 24-15 vote Tuesday.
Bills involving texting while driving have been unsuccessful in recent years; four failed last year alone. Norment, the Senate majority leader, said his support may have helped with this year’s success.
“When I heard what these senators were doing, I thought a bipartisan approach might help to move it along,” he said.
Under existing law in Virginia, texting while driving is a secondary offense (meaning you can get cited only if you have been pulled over for some other violation). The current penalties are $20 for a first offense and $50 for a second or subsequent offense.
SB 1222 and HB 1907 would make texting while driving a primary offense and raise the fine to $200 for a first violation and $500 for a second. Texting while driving also would be punishable as reckless driving.
Some opponents have disparaged the legislation, claiming it would prevent drivers from making cellphone calls or using GPS systems. Such claims are untrue, Anderson said.
“It prohibits anything text-related while driving,” he said. “You can still use your phone to make calls or use GPS.”
Several accidents involving texting while driving have brought the issue to the General Assembly’s attention. One happened in Anderson’s district, which includes part of Prince William County.
“A police officer was helping a man load a mattress back onto his truck after it had fallen off. They were hit by a driver that had been texting. The man was killed, and the officer was permanently disabled,” Anderson said.
Sen. George Barker, D-Alexandria, also highlighted the dangers of texting while driving.
“Studies show the probability of getting in an accident while texting is not double — it is 23 times greater,” Barker said. “That is the equivalent to driving with a .08 blood alcohol content.”
Delegate Barbara Comstock, R-McLean, said the new laws would make people aware of the risks associated with texting while driving.
“This is one of the most important bills we will pass this year,” she said. “We need to push the knowledge of this on students.”
The House now will consider SB 1222, and the Senate will do the same with HB 1907. If passed, they could be enacted in time for National Distracted Driving Awareness Month in April.