By Michael Schuster
Capital News Service
RICHMOND − A new state law to stiffen penalties for Virginians caught texting while driving will save countless lives, the head of a nonprofit driving safety organization says.
“Distracted driving is one of the main causes of accidents in the state. The laws are designed to keep Virginia drivers safe, not to punish them. There has been a ton of positive feedback so far,” said Janet Brooking, executive director of DriveSmart Virginia.
The Richmond-based group was a driving force behind the General Assembly’s crackdown on texting while driving this year.
“We work with lawmakers annually to get driving safety laws passed, and texting while driving was certainly a big issue this session,” Brooking said. “What DriveSmart does is that we educate the public about the dangers of unsafe driving.”
DriveSmart Virginia was founded in 1995 by Allstate, GEICO and other insurance companies, according to the group’s website. It is dedicated to “educating drivers and raising traffic safety awareness in order to save lives and reduce injuries on the roadways of Virginia.”
During the 2013 legislative session, the organization helped secure passage of House Bill 1907 and Senate Bill 1222. The legislation makes it a primary offense to enter multiple letters or text into a handheld communications device while driving. (That means you can get ticketed if a police officer sees you texting while driving. Currently, this is a secondary offense, meaning you can be cited only if you have been stopped for some other violation.)
Originally, Delegate James L. Anderson, R-Woodbridge, and chief patron of HB 1907, aimed to increase the penalties for texting while driving offenses from $20 to $250 for a first offense and from $50 to $500 for subsequent violations.
However, Gov. Bob McDonnell felt that the increases were too harsh and recommended cutting the new fines in half. The General Assembly agreed during its one-day “veto session” this month.
As a result, under the legislation that McDonnell signed on April 3, an initial texting-while-driving infraction will result in a fine of $125, while a second offense will cost $250.
“We would have loved to get the $250 and $500 [fines], but that would have required an entire handheld ban, and I just don’t think Virginia is ready for that yet,” Brooking said.
The new law, with its higher fines, will go into effect July 1.
DriveSmart Virginia isn’t waiting for the law to take effect in order to urge motorists to hang up and focus on driving. The group is asking Virginians to take an online pledge to “stop using a cell phone while driving” and to ask family members and friends to do the same. The pledge is available at www.drivesmartva.org
The effort is especially timely: April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month. Most people understand that distracted driving is dangerous, Brooking said.
“I think a lot of people are responding really well to the new laws,” she said. “We were in Martinsville at the NASCAR race, taking pledges for people to not text and drive, and honestly only a few people refused.”
However, some Virginia drivers, like Virginia Commonwealth University student Matthew Kemp, think the new laws may be an invasion of privacy.
“I’m all for safe driving, for sure,” he said. “But with everyone having a smartphone these days, I think it’s going to be hard for the police to determine if someone is texting while driving. I understand the penalties, but I think it may be invasive in some cases.”
DriveSmart’s Distracted Driving Pledge
DriveSmart Virginia has posted its Distracted Driving Pledge for people to sign online at www.drivesmartva.org. It states:
I, (your name), pledge to lead the way by:
1. Committing to stop using a cell phone while driving.
2. Asking loved ones and friends to stop using cell phones while driving.
3. Being informed about traffic safety laws in my area. (Virginia)
4. Learning more about how distracted driving can harm me and others.
5. Being courteous to other drivers on the roadway by reducing tasks (dining, grooming, talking on cell phone, etc.) while operating a vehicle.
6. Modifying my driving behaviors to maintain satisfactory driving performance and attentiveness.