Text No More
Lawmakers Seek To Clarify Reckless Driving, Messaging Laws
Posted: October 9, 2012
HARRISONBURG — Lawmakers will be looking at amending state code next year to make clear what some area legislators felt was already apparent: Texting while operating a vehicle amounts to reckless driving.
Under a 2009 law, drivers caught using a cellphone to read, type or send messages could be charged with a minor traffic offense. It made the activity a secondary offense, meaning violators must be stopped for a primary offense such as speeding to be charged under the provision.
Under the law, those convicted face a maximum $20 fine.
Several bills that would change the texting provision to a primary offense failed during the previous General Assembly session.
Efforts were unsuccessful in part because of the sentiment of Dels. Ben Cline and Tony Wilt, who argue the reckless driving statute is sufficient to address texting as well.
But in response to confusion about the law, Cline said he is drafting legislation to remove all doubt that texting is reckless, and as such a primary offense.
“No one can text while driving and still maintain … proper control of their vehicle,” said Cline, R-Rockbridge, chairman of the subcommittee where the primary offense legislation died last session. “It’s inherently reckless activity that should be treated as such.”
At least one judge in the commonwealth wasn’t convinced the law supports that argument, and in August he dismissed a reckless driving charge filed against a man who police said opened a text message at about the time he crashed into another vehicle, killing a man.
In his ruling, Fairfax County Judge Thomas Gallahue said the reckless driving charge against Jason Gage of Alexandria could not stand because the General Assembly’s 2009 law made texting “something way less than” reckless driving, according to The Washington Post.
Gage was charged in the 2011 death of Kyle Rowley, a freshman at Coastal Carolina University from Northern Virginia, the Post reported.
Cline, an assistant prosecutor in the Rockingham County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, said the secondary offense legislation wasn’t intended to mitigate the more serious charge.
“In my subcommittee, we had encouraged state police to educate judges and law enforcement about the availability of reckless driving [as an option with which to charge drivers], but it has become clear that we need to clarify that section of the code to let law enforcement know and the public know that it … should be treated as reckless driving and carries with it serious fines and possible jail time,” he said.
Reckless driving is punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.
Legislators seeking to strengthen the laws against texting while driving have plenty of local support.
The Rockingham County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution recently urging the General Assembly to make it a primary offense and stiffen penalties for offenders.
Harrisonburg City Council will consider adopting a resolution similar to the county’s when it meets tonight.
Wilt, R-Broadway, who is a member of Cline’s subcommittee, said he “still feels strongly” that texting constitutes reckless driving, but legislators may need to make changes so that it’s clear to police, prosecutors and judges.
“We’ll definitely take the county’s resolution to heart and see how it best fits in with the code to accomplish what we all want,” he said.
Contact Jeremy Hunt at 574-6273 or firstname.lastname@example.org