Just a few weeks ago, we listed Virginia finally moving to make holding a cellphone while driving a primary offense among the wins for a stormy legislative session. Similar bills had passed in both the House and Senate banning drivers from holding cellphones — a restriction designed to make enforcement easier for police.
Given the history of this issue in the commonwealth, we shouldn’t have been surprised that the move was scuppered in the closing days of the session, as some sought to amend the bill to allow holding a phone while on a call.
Under current law, only drivers under the age of 18 are prohibited from using cellphones, including hands-free devices. Those 18 and older may use their cellphones. Texting while driving is prohibited for all ages but is difficult to enforce.
Unable to find a compromise on language before the end of the session, lawmakers failed for the second straight year to enact distracted-driving legislation. Virginia remains the only state in the region without such a law.
Last week, at the urging of American Automobile Association, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced an amendment to a work-zone safety bill that would have banned holding cellphones while driving. Northam’s amendment looked to give distracted driving legislation a second chance this year, but advocates shouldn’t get their hopes up.
House Speaker Kirk Cox’s office said Friday the speaker believes the amendment is out of order. This would effectively kill it before a vote when lawmakers return Wednesday, April 3, for their annual veto session. His office stressed it was a procedural decision, not based on the merits of the proposal.
While we do not disagree with the speaker’s likely ruling on the amendment, we stress again it is well past time for Virginia to enact distracted driving legislation, and lament our elected representatives’ failure to do so in the recent legislative session.
In 2016 alone, 3,450 people were killed and 391,000 were injured in motor-vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers, according to statistics reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. During daylight hours, approximately 481,000 drivers are using cellphones while driving.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, sending or reading a text message takes your eyes off the road for about five seconds. At 55 mph, that’s long enough to cover a football field. Studies have shown that cellphone drivers exhibit greater impairment than drunk drivers.
Today’s drivers face an increasing number of distractions behind the wheel. Conveniences like navigation, infotainment systems and Bluetooth have been added to the radios and climate controls of old. And while each offers new opportunities to take a driver’s eye off the road, the National Safety Council says 53 percent of drivers wrongly believe these technologies are put into vehicles not out of convenience, but to make them safer.
Most of us have followed a car drifting and weaving on the road, and assumed the driver was impaired or falling asleep. We may have been surprised to find the driver was actually fiddling with something in the car or on a cellphone. And before we say, “that’s them, not me,” think about the last time you heard the ding of a text message and reached for the phone, thinking, “I’ll just glance at it.” Remember, the brain doesn’t really multitask.
In such conditions, not taking a hand off the wheel to manipulate and hold a phone while hurtling 3,000 to 6,000 pounds of metal down the road at speeds approaching 70 mph should be a no-brainer.
While we always advocate for individual rights, we also champion responsibility. Law enforcement must have the ability to help prevent driver distractions that put us, our families and our children at risk. To that end, we firmly believe our legislators need to resolve their differences and enact hands-free driving laws ASAP.