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Cracking down on texting while driving

Members of the House and Senate are optimistic that at least some of the 10 bills to crack down on texting while driving will make it past the legislative deadline called crossover day.

At the start of the session, three such bills were filed in the Senate bills and seven in the House. If a bill has not made it out of the House or Senate by Tuesday, it is left on table for the year. Beginning Wednesday, the House can consider only bills approved by the Senate, and the Senate can consider only legislation passed by the House.

Sen. George Barker, D-Alexandria, is the chief patron of two of the Senate bills. He is hopeful the legislation will make it past crossover.

“We have been trying this for a few years and have been gradually making progress. I think the odds look good this year,” Barker said.

Last year, his bill to increase the penalties for texting while driving passed the Senate but died in the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee.

This year, Barker is sponsoring Senate Bill 1160, which would increase the fine for texting while driving to $200 for a first offense and $500 dollars for a second offense. (The existing penalties are $20 for a first offense and $50 for subsequent offense. They were set in 2009 when the General Assembly passed the current law against texting while driving.)

SB 1160 also would make texting while driving a primary offense. Currently, it is a secondary offense, meaning drivers can be charged only if they have been stopped for another violation.

Barker’s other bill, SB 1238, would make texting while driving punishable as reckless driving. Sen. Thomas Norment, R-Williamsburg, has a similar proposal, SB 1222.

All three Senate bills will be heard in Senate Courts of Justice Committee on Monday [Feb. 4]. If approved by the committee, they will go to the full Senate.

The seven House bills have been folded into one – HB 1907, proposed by Delegate Rich Anderson, R-Woodbridge.

HB 1907 mirrors Barker’s bill: It would make texting while driving a primary offense and drastically increase the fines for an infraction. Anderson said this could be the year such a bill passes.

“It has a strong support, and a lot of people are committed to it. In prior years, there wasn’t as much focus on how much of a real danger this is,” he said.

Delegate David Bulova, D-Fairfax, said a recent event had a strong influence on the General Assembly’s attitude toward texting – a “tragedy to the highest extreme.”

In May 2011, Kyle Rowley, a college student, was killed by man presumed to be texting while driving in Fairfax County. When the case went to trial this past September, the judged dropped the reckless driving charge against the driver. The reason: The penalty for texting while driving is $20, and the offense counts as a minor traffic infraction. The judge ruled that it could not count as reckless driving.

“The situation was shocking to the General Assembly. We were appalled,” Bulova said. “You could see why the judge would rule that way. He wasn’t wrong; we were.”

On Friday, the House Courts of Justice Committee unanimously approved HB 1907. It is now before the full House of Delegates.

Bulova hopes the bipartisan support in the House and Senate will make 2013 the year Virginia targets texting while driving.

“We want to send a strong message that it is the driver’s primary responsibility to pay attention and monitor themselves while they drive,” he said.

The status of anti-texting bills
Here are the bills that would increase the penalties for texting while driving:

In the House, the main bill is HB 1907, proposed by Delegate Rich Anderson, R-Woodbridge. The full House of Delegates is scheduled to vote on the proposal. Six bills have been incorporated into this legislation. They are:

HB 1357, by Delegate Thomas Rust, R-Herndon
HB 1360, by Delegate Benjamin Cline, R-Amherst
HB 1495, by Delegate Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg
HB 1540, by Delegate Vivian Watts, D-Annandale
HB 1848, by Delegate G. Manoli Loupassi, R-Richmond
HB 1883, by Delegate David Bulova, D-Fairfax

In the Senate, three bills are before the Senate Courts of Justice Committee. They are SB 1160 and SB 1238, by Sen. George Barker, D-Alexandria; and SB 1222, by Sen. Thomas Norment, R-Williamsburg.
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