Both houses of the General Assembly passed legislation today to strengthen enforcement and increase penalties for texting while driving.
The identical bills would allow police to stop drivers for using a “handheld personal communications device” to send or view text messages and emails. Virginia’s existing law treats texting while driving as a secondary offense, meaning police must have cause to stop a driver for a separate offense before issuing a citation for texting.
Drivers found guilty of the offense would face a $250 fine for a first offense and $500 fines for subsequent offenses. The legislation also would impose a $500 mandatory minimum fine for someone convicted of a reckless driving that occurs while a driver is texting.
“Texting while driving has become a serious problem on our roads and it should be treated in Virginia as a serious traffic offense,” said Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge County, who helped negotiate a compromise bill (House Bill 1907)that passed the House by a vote of 92-4.
The Senate passed an identical measure (Senate Bill 1222) by a vote of 24-15.
“If someone is driving and they are stopped by a law enforcement officer for reckless driving and they are texting away at the same time, then they deserve the punishment that they receive,” said Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City County, who sponsored the bill in the Senate.
Lawmakers in both parties decided to work toward a tougher texting-while-driving law after a Fairfax County judge acquitted a motorist of reckless driving in connection with a 2011 fatal accident, despite evidence that the driver had opened a text message about the same time as the crash. Some legislators who believed the state’s reckless driving law had covered texting were involved in negotiating the compromise that passed this year.
– Michael Sluss