Crime Panel Backs Strict Texting Bill
Local Prosecutor Wants To Make It A Primary Driving Offense; Police Fear Enforcement Problems
Posted: December 6, 2012
HARRISONBURG — Members of the Virginia Crime Commission voted Wednesday to recommend making texting while driving a primary offense, but some law enforcement officials question how police would be able to enforce the law.
A primary offense means police can pull over violators without another reason, such as speeding. A secondary offense — which texting while driving became as a result of a 2009 law — cannot be used on its own by police to pull over a motorist.
The commission’s vote came just hours after Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, a Rockingham County assistant commonwealth’s attorney, held a press conference in Richmond to unveil his bill.
The proposed legislation bars drivers from using a handheld communications device for anything other than “verbal communication” while operating a vehicle.
It would be considered reckless driving, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $2,500, a jail sentence of up to a year, or both.
“This bill will strengthen the law on texting while driving and send the message that this is not safe or tolerable driving behavior,” Cline said.
Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, signed on as a chief co-patron of the bill.
“It’s an area that [I], and probably every other citizen, is concerned about,” said Wilt, adding the bill clarifies state law.
The current statute came under scrutiny in October when a Fairfax County judge ruled it didn’t meet the criteria for reckless driving.
Still, police continue to question its enforceability.
Although texting while driving is a problem, Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson said, there remain key issues of the legislation that must yet be addressed by the Virginia General Assembly. For example, he said, it can be difficult for a deputy to tell whether a driver is dialing a number or texting.
“There has to be some hand movement no matter what,” Hutcheson said. “Don’t you have to hit a button to dial or hang up the phone?”
Cline agreed the bill will have to be fine-tuned once it goes to the General Assembly.
“It’s a legitimate issue,” he said. “It’s going to have to be a question that’s looked at. A complete ban on the use of cellphones would be a cleaner way to solve the problem, but support of a ban on cellphone use wouldn’t be very high.”
Still, legislators like Wilt say the proposal to make texting while driving a primary offense is a positive step.
“We felt something needed to be done,” he said. “It narrows it down. It will be considered reckless driving. It gives it real teeth.”
Contact Pete DeLea at 574-6278 or firstname.lastname@example.org