HARRISONBURG — Beginning this summer, drivers on Virginia roads will likely need to put their cellphones down.
The House of Delegates and Senate have passed bills that would require anyone talking while driving to use hands-free technology.
Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, and Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, opposed the bill, while Dels. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, and Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, supported it.
The fine would be $125 for a first offense and $250 for subsequent violations.
Landes said the bill, which aims to reduce traffic crashes, is one his constituents want.
“A lot of accidents are attributed to people that aren’t paying attention,” Landes said.
Gov. Ralph Northam would need to sign the bill for it to take effect, and he can amend it. Calls to his office weren’t returned.
New laws typically go into effect on July 1 in Virginia.
If approved, Virginia would become the 20th state to enact such a law. Maryland and West Virginia both have similar legislation on the books.
It would come about six years after the state’s last crackdown on cellphone use while driving.
In July 2013, a law went into effect making texting while driving a primary offense, meaning police can pull violators over even if they’re following all other traffic laws. The penalty is a misdemeanor with a fine of $125 for a first offense and $250 for subsequent offenses.
Before that, under a 2009 law, drivers caught texting could be charged with a minor traffic offense. It was a secondary offense, meaning violators could be charged after committing another traffic violation, such as speeding. Under that law, those convicted faced a maximum $20 fine.
Landes said the previous laws didn’t go far enough.
“They were just not working; so, you have to take drastic measures,” Landes said. “I see 80 or 90 percent of people using cellphones while driving. ... I see it every day going up the interstate.”
Bridgewater Police Chief Joe Simmons said he supports the bill, as he constantly sees people talking and driving without hands-free devices.
“If we can increase safety and decrease traffic crashes, I’m all for it,” Simmons said.
Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson, meanwhile, said he has “mixed feelings” about the bill.
Hutcheson said he uses his cellphone to make calls while driving.
“It’s going to change the way we do things,” he said. “I do it every day.”
Although law enforcement would be exempt from the law, Hutcheson said deputies would need to obey it, too, except in cases of emergencies.
“We have to start with ourselves,” he said.
The bill has been unsuccessfully presented several times in past years. Hutcheson hasn’t been a supporter.
“There are still many other distractions that are prevalent ... eating food, changing the radio,” he said. “It boils down to personal responsibility.”