Delegate’s call: Hang up and drive

When you’re driving and you suddenly hear your phone ring, your first reaction is to answer it, right? Satisfying that urge would be illegal under legislation before the Virginia General Assembly.

Delegate Vivian Watts, D-Annandale, has proposed a bill to prohibit any driving while using a cell phone – even if the device is hands-free.

“Drivers’ use of cell phones while driving has significantly increased, and our laws need to reflect road safety on this issue – and they currently do not,” Watts said.

On Thursday morning, a subcommittee of the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee considered Watts’ proposal, House Bill 1630. On a voice vote, the subcommittee recommended that no action be taken on the measure.

Under existing state law, Virginians may not send or read text messages while they drive. (A first offense can draw a $20 fine, and repeat offenses, $50.) Motorists under 18 must refrain from using cells phones at all while driving.

Both of those violations are secondary offenses: You can get ticketed only if police have pulled you over for another reason, such as speeding or running a red light.
HB 1630 would prohibit all drivers, not just young ones, from using their cell phones.

“It shall be unlawful for any person to operate a moving motor vehicle on the highways in the Commonwealth while using any handheld personal communications cellular telephone or other wireless telecommunications device to … initiate or answer any call or talk on the device, regardless of whether it is configured for hands-free operation,” the proposal says.

Violations still would be a secondary offense. But a violation would be punished as a Class 3 misdemeanor – meaning a fine of up to $500.

Watts says research shows how dangerous it is when drivers are distracted by their cell phones.

“In research, it’s comparable to drunk driving in that it impairs your focus,” she said.

Another proposal before the General Assembly would help legislators get a better handle on that research.

House Joint Resolution 621, sponsored by Delegate Joe May, R-Leesburg, would ask the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute to study how to discourage drivers from using their cell phones.

The institute would “research strategies for getting drivers to adhere to the laws prohibiting certain uses of cell phones in motor vehicles,” says the resolution, which has been assigned to the House Rules Committee.

“Such research may include a look at primary versus secondary enforcement of cell phone laws and an analysis of any data available on the enforcement of the current laws.”

The General Assembly is considering one other piece of legislation on the issue: Senate Bill 1047, sponsored by Sen. George Barker, D-Alexandria. It would make cell phone use by drivers under 18 a primary offense. The Senate Transportation Committee is considering Barker’s bill.

Across the United States, many officials are concerned about drivers using cell phones. At least eight states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands have outlawed hand-held cell phone use while driving; 30 other states, D.C. and Guam prohibit texting while driving.

The jury is still out on how effective such laws are.

In a 2010 study, the Highway Loss Data Institute, a nonprofit research group funded by the insurance industry, found no reduction in car crashes after cell phone bans were enacted. The study examined insurance claims for crash damages in four states. It said accident rates didn’t drop after jurisdictions banned phoning while driving.

But other studies blame at least some car crashes on the use of cell phones. The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis said cell phones contribute to about 6 percent of traffic accidents, including 2,600 deaths, each year.

Watts believes that a law against phoning while driving would enhance traffic safety – just like the law requiring drivers to wear seat belts.

“People started using seat belts more and more, and it became a habit,” Watts said. “People realized what a difference it made in safety.”

Her proposed cell phone ban is co-sponsored by four other Democrats legislators – all from Northern Virginia: Delegates Charniele Herring of Alexandria and Ken Plum of Reston, and Sens. Janet Howell of Reston and Mary Margaret Whipple of Arlington.

Herring said that even if the bill fails, it will raise awareness.

“Hopefully it will make a difference to our safety – less reckless driving incidents,” she said.

HB 1630 would not apply to emergency operators, parked or stopped cars, the use of a device to report an emergency, GPS systems, digital dispatch systems or two-way citizens band radios.

Current Virginia Cell Phone Laws
• Drivers with provisional licenses (under age 18) are prohibited from using cell phones while driving. (Secondary enforcement)
• All drivers are banned from texting while driving. (Secondary enforcement)
• School bus drivers are prohibited from text-messaging and using cell phones while driving. (Primary enforcement)
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