For more than a decade, Janet Brooking of DRIVE SMART Virginia pushed state legislators to prohibit using cellphones while driving.
After years of work, beginning Jan. 1, it will be illegal in the commonwealth to drive a vehicle and hold a cellphone or other handheld personal communications device.
Brooking said the new law will save lives. According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, 15% of fatalities in car crashes were caused by distracted driving.
“Distracted driving is a huge problem and we know that handheld devices are the most egregious,” said Brooking, DRIVE SMART’s executive director.
Normally, new state laws go into effect July 1, but lawmakers wanted to give more time for drivers to learn about the law and the penalties that come with a violation.
Those who violate the law will face a $125 fine for the first offense and $250 for each subsequent offense. Violation of the law in a work zone is an automatic $250 fine, even if it’s a driver’s first offense.
Exceptions to the law include people using devices when a vehicle is parked or stopped, emergency personnel engaged in work-related duties or drivers calling in an emergency.
DRIVE SMART Virginia, a nonprofit group aimed at raising awareness to safety measures that reduce fatalities and injuries, pushed for the law for several years.
Brooking said she first pushed for a ban on texting while driving.
In 2009, Virginia banned texting while driving but made it a secondary offense, meaning an officer couldn’t make a traffic stop for texting while driving unless there was another offense, such as speeding.
In 2013, legislators made the law a primary offense, meaning an officer could stop a vehicle without any other reason if the driver was seen texting while driving.
DRIVE SMART Virginia then shifted its focus toward banning cellphone use altogether while driving.
Brooking said that she often is questioned about why there’s not as much of a push toward banning other distractions, such as eating food while driving.
She said there are three types of distractions: cognitive, manual and visual.
Unlike some other distractions, she said, using a cellphone is all three.
In the next few months, Brooking said, SMART DRIVE Virginia will be using several methods, including paid social-media campaigns and working with the Virginia Chiefs of Police Association, to educate drivers.
The Harrisonburg Police Department already began posting on social media notifying drivers that they need to kick the habit before the new year starts.
Sgt. Chris Monahan, of the Community Resource Unit, said he supported the new law.
“It will remove a distraction and allow drivers to pay attention to traffic and pedestrians,” he said.
Even though it won’t be against the law, he also recommends that pedestrians stop using cellphones while walking.
Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson, who opposed the passage of the law, said his deputies will use a common-sense approach, targeting those who are driving recklessly.
“Our deputies will be alert to it,” he said. “Hopefully, people will comply with it.”