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Identical legislation now heads to votes in both the full Senate and House, perhaps this week.
Tuesday, February 5, 2013
Legislation to strengthen enforcement and increase penalties for texting while driving continues to advance in the General Assembly.
The Senate Courts of Justice Committee on Monday endorsed legislation that would allow police to stop drivers solely for using a “handheld personal communications device” to send or view text messages and emails.
Senate Bill 1222, like an identical measure moving through the House of Delegates, would impose a $250 fine for a first offense of texting while driving and a $500 fine for subsequent offenses.
The legislation also would impose a $500 mandatory minimum fine for someone convicted of reckless driving while texting.
Virginia law currently 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.
And even if a driver is found guilty of texting, a first offense carries a fine of just $20, and subsequent offenses carry fines of $50.
The Senate committee advanced the bill by a 9-6 vote, sending it to the full Senate. The House Courts of Justice committee unanimously endorsed its version of the bill on Friday.
Progress on the issue has been years in the making.
“It’s heading in the right direction,” said Sen. George Barker, a Fairfax County Democrat who has carried texting bills for several years. “This is substantially further than we’ve ever gotten before.”
Barker’s texting bills were rolled into Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment’s bill that was passed by the committee.
Barker’s main 2012 texting bill, which cleared the Senate before falling in a House subcommittee, didn’t have the teeth SB 1222 does. It made texting a primary offense, but didn’t boost fines.
This year, similar legislation from Del. Rich Anderson, R-Prince William County, was sent to the House Courts of Justice Committee, not the Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee that killed past texting proposals.
A full House vote on Anderson’s House Bill 1907 is expected this week.
The measures would also mandate a minimum $500 fine for people convicted of reckless driving who violated the texting law at the same time.
A texting prohibition was added to Virginia law in 2009 — Del. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, carried the legislation that year — but safe driving advocates have long complained it isn’t strong enough.
Before the bill advanced, Sen. Richard Stuart, R- Westmoreland County, voiced concerns about empowering police to make judgment calls when an “officer cannot distinguish” whether a driver is “picking up a device” to text or dial a phone number.
Norment, R-James City County, defended the combined legislation as appropriate given how critical a problem texting while driving is, but said he expects the Senate vote to advance it will be “fairly tight.”
Barker said texting is an “extraordinarily dangerous offense,” noting that statistics indicate drivers typing on a handheld device are 23 times more likely to be involved in an accident.
Roanoke Times staff writer Michael Sluss contributed to this story.
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