Virginia State Capitol Building in Richmond

The Virginia General Assembly meets in the state capitol building in Richmond.

RICHMOND — The Virginia Senate and House of Delegates on Tuesday each passed bills prohibiting motorists from touching their cellphones while driving.

The Senate approved SB 1341 on a vote of 34-6, and the House passed HB 1811, 69-27. The bills would explicitly ban using a hand-held communication device, unless it is in hands-free mode, while operating a vehicle.

State law currently prohibits only reading email or text messages or manually entering letters or text in a hand-held personal communications device while driving. The legislation would extend that ban to using the device for making phone calls, checking social media and other purposes.

“It is unlawful for any person, while driving a moving motor vehicle on the highways in the commonwealth, to hold a handheld personal communications device,” the bills state.

Drivers would still be able to operate their phones if they are lawfully parked or stopped or are reporting an emergency.

The legislation passed five days after Bartley King, who was severely injured in a distracted driving accident in 2007 when he was a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University, spoke to senators in favor of the proposals.

In a Facebook post, King recalled his car hitting a tree at 55 mph while he was texting. The crash put him in the VCU Medical Center and left him in a coma for 28 days. He then spent 16 months in a wheelchair relearning to walk.

“I can’t give up and allow others to be hurt as badly as I was,” King wrote. “I made my beloved mother cry and I owe it to her to protect all the other mothers from having to cry for their babies the way that mine did.”

The chief sponsors of the House bill were Republican Dels. Christopher Collins (R-29th) of Frederick County and Michael Webert (R-18th) of Fauquier County and Democratic Del. Michael Mullin (R-93rd) of Newport News.

Speaking as a former police officer, Collins said the existing law needed improvements.

“Our current texting while driving statute has just not been enforced,” he said. “The enforcement numbers went way down during the last several years.”

The penalty for a first offense is a $125 fine that rises to $250 for a second or subsequent violation.

“This is going to be straight up — if you have your phone in your hand, you are in violation of a law,” Collins said.

The Senate bill was sponsored by Republican Sens. Richard Stuart (R-28th) of King George County and Frank Wagner (R-7th) of Virginia Beach and Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell (D-36th), who represents part of Prince William, Stafford and Fairfax counties. 

Under the legislation, the ban on using hand-held devices would not apply to citizens band radios. The bills also would exempt hand-held communication devices that are physically connected to the vehicle and used for navigation or audio transmissions.

Although the House and Senate bills are identical, the legislation still hasn’t cleared the final hurdles. Now, the House must pass the Senate bill, or the Senate must pass the House bill, and then the governor must sign the legislation.

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