Last updated: May 15, 2013
Distracted driving news: A new law establishes primary enforcement for text messaging and driving in Virginia, allowing police to stop and cite motorists for that offense alone. The law takes effect July 1, 2013.
Fines still will be significantly increased, from the current $20 to $125 (first offense) and from the current $50 to $250 for subsequent offenses. There also will be a $250 minimum fine for reckless drivers who are texting at the time of the offense.
The twin bills that toughened enforcement of the Virginia texting & driving law were approved during the 2013 legislative session by the governor and General Assembly.
The legislation’s increased fines were too high for Gov. Bob McDonnell, whose proposal to halve them was accepted by both houses of the General Assembly on April 3.
The primary enforcement law barely made into the books when the Washington Post declared it “all but toothless.” The Post’s reporter noted that drivers who are pulled over for texting on handheld cell phones need only say they were talking on the phone or getting directions via a GPS app.
The program Drive SMART Virginia is trying to get commercial truckers in line with the federal regulations regarding use of cell phones and other handheld electronic devices. The “Phone Down, Just Drive” campaign is largely educational, but deputies have been busy in May writing tickets for cell phone and seat belt violations — about 100 in a three-week period in New Kent County. The DOT regulations are backed up by primary enforcement.
Eight out of 10 crashes in the Commonwealth are blamed on distracted drivers, safety officials say.
- All drivers are banned from text messaging. $20 fine (first offense) then $50. (Fines $125 to $250 as of July 1, 2013.)
- Drivers under the age of 18 are prohibited from using cell phones or text messaging.
- School bus drivers are prohibited from using cell phones or text messaging
2013 distracted driving legislation
House Bill 1907: Would make text messaging while driving a primary offense. Seeks to increase fines to $200 and then $500 for subsequent offenses. Would establish a $500 minimum fine for reckless driving while texting. See SB 1222, below. Approved by the House in a 92-4 vote of Feb. 5. Approved by the Senate Courts Committee in a 9-6 vote of Feb. 15. Approved by the Senate on Feb. 29 in 28-12 vote. Final General Assembly sign-off Feb. 23. Governor proposes halving of proposed fines. Latest legislative action: General Assembly approves governor’s amendments April 3. The final House vote was 86-8. The Senate vote was 36-4. HB 1907 is identical to SB 1222, below. (Anderson)
Senate Bill 1222: Seeks primary enforcement of state texting & driving law. Increases fines. Sets minimum fine for reckless driving while texting. See HB 1907, above. Approved by the Senate in a 24-15 vote of Feb. 5. Latest legislative action: Approved by the House Courts Committee in a 16-1 vote of Feb. 15. Approved by the House in a 91-6 vote of Feb. 22. OK’d by the Senate in a 27-12 vote Feb. 21. Final General Assembly sign-off Feb. 23. Governor proposes halving of proposed fines. Latest legislative action: General Assembly approves governor’s amendments April 3. The final House vote was 86-8. The Senate vote was 36-4. Identical to HB 1907, above. (Norment)
House Bill 1360: Would make non-phone call use of handheld communications while driving a primary offense, punishable as reckless driving. Would repeal current texting law, which has secondary enforcement. See HB 1907, above. (Cline)
HB 1357: Seeks primary enforcement status for violations of state’s texting & driving ban. (Rust)
Virginia distracted driving notes (2013):
The massive construction project along I-95 around Dale City hasn’t made much of an impact on distracted drivers. AAA and construction firm Transurban say more than half of the drivers who come through the zone use their cell phones, and a fifth admit to text messaging in the area. (The numbers are based on a survey of 1,000 drivers.) About 1,500 workers are in the corridor each day. The project’s safety initiative is called “Orange Cones, No Phones.”
State Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, vice chair of the Virginia Crime Commission, says a complete ban on driving while texting — making it a primary offense — is the priority distracted driving legislation for 2013. Mission accomplished April 3, when the governor and lawmakers agreed on a tougher distracted driver plan.
Howell filed SB 981, which would bar drivers from use of all handheld communications devices in school dropoff zones. Fines would be $250, she said. That plan was incorporated into catch-all driving & texting legislation, above.
The 2013 General Assembly measures was kept busy by a swarm of similar distracted driving bills filed as the state’s texting law came under heavy fire:
A judge, prosecutor and lawmakers had been highly critical of Virginia’s text messaging law after the court had to throw out a reckless-driving charge against a driver who allegedly was texting when he hit and killed a college student.
Texting was at the time a minor traffic infraction in Virginia subject to secondary enforcement. In the widely publicized case, the driver, from Alexandria, hit and killed the student in 2011, prosecutors said. “The law needs to be changed,” the Spotsylvania commonwealth attorney said.
Virginia issued about 63,000 tickets for texting & driving in the five years ending in fiscal 2011, the Washington Post reported.
2012 distracted driving notes:
The House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee has been a burial ground for distracted driving legislation during the past three sessions. In 2012, it wasted no time in shooting down at least 10 distracted driving bills. Sen. George Barker’s plan to make text messaging while driving subject to primary enforcement (SB 219) was approved by the full Senate in February, 2012. Barker’s bill that would apply primary enforcement for junior drivers suffered the same fate.
Of the 10 distracted driving measures filed for the 2012 legislative session, three sought to prohibit use of handheld cell phones and five would have given primary enforcement status to the text messaging law. One unusual bill included a ban on personal grooming and reaching for objects not within an arm’s distance. Another would have created a blanket offense of doing something other than driving safely.
Del. Bobby Orrock filed a bill that would make most forms of distracted driving subject to primary enforcement. “We need to look at it in the full context,” said Orrock, R-Caroline, who cites “texting, putting on makeup, snarfing down a cheeseburger, whatever” as examples of distracted driving. His legislation, HB 532, failed to make it out of committee. Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, filed a similar but more specific plan, HB 415, that also failed to advance. (Both bills below.)
A subcommittee of the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee took up eight distracted driving bills on Jan. 26, but reported out (advanced) none of them. By the end of the session all 10 distracted driving bills in the Legislature were rejected by the panel. This was a rerun of the past two legislative sessions. Subcommittee chairman Del. Ben Cline said he preferred to see distracted driving enforced under existing reckless driving statutes. “We need to refocus the attention of law enforcement and our judges” on reckless driving behaviors, said Cline. Four of the five subcommittee members are Republicans.
2012 distracted driving legislation:
Senate Bill 219: Would make text messaging while driving a primary offense. Approved by the Senate Transportation Committee on Jan. 18 in an 8-5-1 vote. Approved by the Courts of Justice Committee on Feb. 6 in a 10-4 vote. Approved by the full Senate in a 28-12 vote of Feb. 12. Died in the House’s Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee in March. (Barker)
SB 210: Would apply primary enforcement to the existing offense of texting or use of a cell phone by a provisional driver. Currently secondary enforcement. Approved by the Senate Transportation Committee in an 11-3 vote on Jan. 18. Approved by the Senate on Jan. 26 in a 30-10 vote. Died in the House’s Public Safety Committee in March. (Barker)
House Bill 394: Would ban use of handheld personal communications devices while driving, notably cell phones. Includes bicycle riders. Primary enforcement. Fine: $20 then $50. Considered but not advanced by a House Militia, Police and Public Safety subcommittee on Jan. 26. Died in the House’s Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee in February. (Algie Howell)
HB 404: Restricts use of handheld personal communications devices to making and receiving cell phone calls. Secondary enforcement. Fines: $20 then $50.Considered but not advanced by a House Militia, Police and Public Safety subcommittee on Jan. 26. Died in the House’s Public Safety Committee in February. (Torian)
HB 415: Would require use of hands-free devices in order to make or receive cell phone calls or to read text messages while driving. Would bar drivers from searching for items that are not “immediate arm’s reach.” Would prohibit attending to personal hygiene or grooming while driving. Secondary enforcement. Fines: $40 then $100. Considered but not advanced by a House Militia, Police and Public Safety subcommittee on Jan. 26. (Watts)
HB 497: Would ban use of handheld personal communications devices while driving, notably cell phones. Includes bicycle riders. Primary enforcement. Fine: $20 then $50. Similar to HB 394, above. Considered but not advanced by a House Militia, Police and Public Safety subcommittee on Jan. 26. Dead. (Dance)
HB 532: Would create offense of “operation of a motor vehicle while engaged in other activities” that impair the ability to drive safely. Primary enforcement. Considered but not advanced by a House Militia, Police and Public Safety subcommittee on Jan. 26. Died in the House’s Public Safety Committee in February. (Orrock)
HB 652: Would remove secondary enforcement limits on Virginia’s existing ban on text messaging while driving. Police would be able to stop and cite offenders for that reason alone. Considered but not advanced by a House Militia, Police and Public Safety subcommittee on Jan. 26. Died in the House’s Public Safety Committee in February. (Kory, Albo, Bulova, Watts)
HB 874: Would make text messaging while driving a primary offense. Considered but not advanced by a House Militia, Police and Public Safety subcommittee on Jan. 26. Died in the House’s Public Safety Committee in February. (Rust)
HB 1053: Would make texting and driving a primary offense. Considered but not advanced by a House Militia, Police and Public Safety subcommittee on Jan. 26. Died in the House’s Public Safety Committee in February. (Anderson)
2011 distracted driving notes:
All efforts to put teeth in Virginia’s distracted driving laws failed in 2011 as no bill made it beyond the House and Senate committees. The House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety has rejected numerous distracted driving measures.
Fairfax County’s nine-month crackdown on distracted driving netted almost a 50 percent increase in citations vs. the same period a year ago. The sweep, which ran concurrent with the school year, yielded about 6,900 tickets in 2010-11, compared with 4,670 in 2009-2010. Police camped out in “unorthodox” locations seeking distracted driving offenders.
Fairfax police, “frustrated by a toothless (texting and driving) law that the Virginia legislature passed (in 2009),” are instead attacking distracted driving under an older law against failure to pay attention while behind the wheel.
Also, the Fairfax County police are conducting an online survey about distracted driving, seeking information on public attitudes and behaviors.
Legislation failures: “It’s a great disappointment and it’s a blow to traffic safety in the state of Virginia,” AAA Mid-Atlantic rep John Townsend said upon hearing that all distracted driving bills in Virginia have been rejected in 2011.
The House’s Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee has been a burial ground for distracted driving legislation during the past two sessions. This year’s crop of bills from representatives and senators all failed to advance beyond that panel. The Senate bills mirrored its 2010 legislation, also killed by the committee.
The Daily Press of Newport News commented that the House committee ” — filled with libertarian, ‘government-hands-off’ politicians — has been the killing field for lots of public safety bills over the years.”
Martha Meade, a spokeswoman for AAA Virginia, knew that getting distracted driving legislation through the General Assembly would be “quite an uphill battle.”
The Senate’s 2011 bills sought to toughen the existing distracted driving laws by making them subject to primary enforcement. One would have outlawed use of handheld cell phones while operating a motor vehicle.
At least seven bills targeting distracted driving were in the hopper in the House of Delegates, but all died. Two sought to ban handheld cell phone use by drivers (in addition to text messaging). Three planned to upgrade the existing Virginia text messaging law to primary enforcement, meaning police can stop and cite motorists for that reason alone.
More than 100 Virginia businesses have vowed to observed the “Orange Cones. No Phones.” employer safety pledge developed by Transurban-Fluor and AAA Mid-Atlantic. The campaign seeks to protect workers on the Capital Beltway HOT Lanes Project and the Dulles Metrorail Project.
2011 distracted driving legislation (dead):
Senate Bill 1042: Would make text messaging while driving a primary offense. Approved by the Virginia Senate on Feb. 8, in a 28-11 vote. Latest action: Rejected by the Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety on Feb. 17. (Barker)
SB 1047: Seeks primary enforcement status for current law that prohibits drivers under the age of 18 from using cell phones or text messaging. Approved by the state Senate on Feb. 8, in a 33-7 vote. Latest action: Rejected by the Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety on Feb. 17. (Barker)
SB 1351: Would outlaw use of handheld cell phones by all drivers. Hands-free OK. Seeks primary enforcement for use of wireless communications devices while driving. Fines: $100 then $200 with possible points against license. (Would apply to current penalties for text messaging.) Latest actions: OK’d by the Senate on Feb. 8, 2011, in a 26-13 vote. “Laid on the table” (killed) by the Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety on Feb. 17. (Norment)
Virginia House Bill 1489: Would upgrade existing text messaging ban to primary enforcement status. Identical to HB 1546, below. Left on table in Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee on Feb. 8. (Spruill)
HB 1404: Seeks to extend Virginia’s text messaging ban to bicycles, mopeds. Would make violations subject to primary enforcement. Dead in committee as of Feb. 8. (Howell) View bicycles & distracted driving page.
HB 1424: Would prohibit the use of handheld cell phones by all drivers. Dead in committee as of Feb. 8. (Dance)
HB 1546: Would toughen existing text messaging ban with change from secondary to primary enforcement status. Identical to HB 1489, above. Dead in committee as of Feb. 8. (Kory)
HB 1630: Would ban cell phone use by all drivers as well as “other wireless telecommunications devices.” No provision for hands-free operation. Deletes current fine system for text messaging in favor of making violations Class C misdemeanors. Secondary enforcement. Latest action: On Jan. 20, a House subcommittee recommended no action be taken on the bill. Dead in committee as of Feb. 8. (Watts)
HJ 621: Calls for Virginia Tech Transportation Institute to study and report on “disincentives” for use of cell phones will driving. Would include primary vs. secondary enforcement and an analysis of current state laws. “Left on table” in Rules Committee as of Feb. 8. (May)
HB 2307: Doubles fines for use of handheld portable electronics if vehicle is in a highway work zone with workers present. “Left” in Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee as of Feb. 8. (Sickles)
Virginia cell phone, texting legislation notes (2010):
Fairfax County police reported that they ticketed more than 9,000 people for inattentive driving during 2010. That’s a 24 percent jump from 2009′s numbers. Fewer than 50 citations for driving and texting were written in the county last year due to the state law’s loopholes and its “secondary” enforcement status.
Text messaging continues to distract more drivers on the Capital Beltway, a survey released in mid-November 2010 found. The number of texting-distracted drivers increased by 47 percent in the past year, said AAA, which did the survey with a highway construction company. A majority of the Beltway motorists said they drove while distracted, with 53 percent talking on cell phones and 13 percent texting.
The House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety effectively killed all distracted driving legislation proposed for the 2010 session. The transportation committee spent most of its time on license plate issues.
Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, who introduced HB 212, says this about distracted driving enforcement: “It really does send mixed signals about whether we’re serious about enforcing this if you make it a secondary offense.” The current text messaging law “does hamstring our police officers.”
2010 legislation (dead)
Virginia Senate Bill 517: Adds use of handheld cell phones to existing texting law and upgrades enforcement to primary status. Fines from $100 to $200. Approved by the Senate on Feb. 2 but tabled by the House subcommittee on Militia, Police and Public Safety on Feb. 24. Bill dead for the year. (Norment)
Virginia House Bill 22: Would outlaw the use of any handheld personal communications device while operating a motor vehicle, bicycle, moped, etc. Fines from $20-$50. This legislation would make text messaging and related activities a primary offense, meaning law officers could pull over a driver for that reason alone (current law calls for secondary enforcement). Assigned to public safety committee, where it was “left on the table” as of Feb. 16. (Howell)
HB 58: Would add use of handheld cell phones to current law prohibiting text message. Drivers would be prohibited from using mobile phones unless a hands-free device is employed. Fines from $20-$50. Secondary enforcement. Assigned to public safety committee, where it was “left on the table” as of Feb. 16. (Dance)
HB 212: Would remove current text messaging law from secondary enforcement status. Assigned to public safety committee, where it was “left on the table” as of Feb. 16. (Bulova)
HB 221: Would make drivers using handheld cell phones guilty of careless driving if they commit another offense at the time. “Left on the table” in public safety committee on Feb. 16. (Watts)
HB 783: Would extend current text messaging law to include use of handheld cell phones. Retains secondary enforcement. If accident results, violation would be a Class 3 misdemeanor. “Left on the table” in public safety committee on Feb. 16. (LeMunyon)
Virginia Senate Bill 10: Would extend current sanctions on drivers’ use of wireless devices to include handheld cell phones. Secondary enforcement would remain. Incorporated into SB 517 (above). (Blevins)
SB 574: Would extend ban on on drivers’ use of wireless devices to include handheld cell phones. Retains secondary enforcement. Incorporated into SB 517 (above). (Ticer)
HB 1876: Prohibits text messaging while operating a motor vehicle. Took effect July 1. Approved by the House and Senate and signed into law by Gov. Tim Kaine on March 30.
SB 1227: Would ban drivers with provisional licenses from talking or texting on cell phones, regardless of whether a hands-free device is employed. Makes violations a primary offense. Tabled by a House subcommitee on Feb. 19 after being approved by the full Senate on Feb. 9.
SB 874 — Would require that drivers use hands-free accessories when making cell phone calls. Passed by the Senate Transportation Committee on Jan. 22, 2009, in amended form, but then defeated in the Courts of Justice on a tight vote. Incorporated SB 996.
HB 1615 — Delegate Algie Howell, D-Norfolk, has prefiled legislation to the 2009 General Assembly that would ban text messaging while driving. The ban would extend to bicycles and mopeds. Incorporated into HB 1876, above.
HB 1659 — Would prohibit use of wireless telecommunications devices while operating a motor vehicle, including bicycles and mopeds, whether handheld or not. Also from Howell. Died in committee on Feb. 10.
HB 1955: Would outlaw motorists’ use of handheld phones. Tabled in committee.
HB 1769: Drivers would be banned from using cell phones unless a hands-free device is employed. Tabled in committee.
Virginia cell phone, texting legislation notes (archived):
Delegate John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, is the author of the text messaging legislation HB 1876. Fines for those who drive and text will be $20 and then $50 for subsequent offenses. It assumes negligence on the part of violators if an accident occurs.
A spokesman for AAA told the Examiner that the secondary status of the new texting law — meaning police would have to have another, primary reason for pulling over drivers — makes it “tantamount to telling people you can do it.” Still, he called it a “moral victory.”
Sen. Patricia Ticer, D-Alexandria, saw her cell phone legislation clear committee on a 9-6 vote before losing in the Courts of Justice on a 7-6 vote. Ticer’s bill was combined with SB 966 from Sen. Harry B. Blevins, R-Chesapeake.
Delegate Bobby Mathieson, D-Virginia Beach, a veteran of the cell phone wars, saw his HB 1955 die in committee on Feb. 10, 2009. His past efforts included HB 904.
The 2009 Regular Session convened Jan. 14, 2009. The short session ended the next month.
The younger-driver prohibitions went into effect in 2007. The prohibitions on school bus drivers became effective July 1, 2008.
“I believe this is a common-sense restriction on those new drivers who may be tempted to pay more attention to phone calls and text messages than the road, endangering themselves and other drivers,” Gov. Tim Kaine said of the 2007 law.
Virginia’s school bus cell phone/ texting law results in a primary offense; the teen driver law is a secondary offense.
The local AAA backed the 2007 legislation; some conservatives opposed the teen driving plan, saying parents should make the rules for their kids.