Proposed Virginia Legislation Would Have Banned All Cell-Phone Use While Driving

 Author: Scott Fitzgerald, Law Clerk

Currently, the law in Virginia is that texting while driving is a secondary offense, punishable by a fine of $20.00 for first-time offenders and $50.00 for all subsequent offenses.[1] This year  legislation was proposed  in the Virginia General Assembly which would extend that ban to prohibit all cell-phone use while driving, except for a  "hands-free" device that is  configured for "hands-free" operation and is in that mode.  As proposed, the law would  not apply to emergency vehicle operators, drivers who are lawfully stopped or parked, or anyone who is using a cell phone to report an emergency.[2] The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 26-13, but in the House of Delegates was tabled, effectively ending any chance that it would pass this year.  [3]

The sponsor of the proposed bill, Senator Thomas K. Norment, R-James City, declared, "I challenge you to drive on any highway and I assure you that seven or eight out of ten people that go by you have a cell phone stuck in their ear."[4] He indicated he sponsored the bill because cell phone use is a "substantial contributor" to distracted-driving accidents.[5]

Studies show that up to 2,600 people are killed and up to 300,000 people are injured each year in car crashes involving cell-phone use by drivers.[6] A recent report issued by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) revealed that drivers talking on a cell phone are four times more likely to get into a car crash serious enough to injure themselves.[7]

If Sen. Norment's bill had passed this year, the legislation would have taken effect on July 1, 2011, and would have made any cell phone use while driving a motor vehicle a secondary offense punishable by fines.    A secondary offense means that an officer cannot pull a driver over for violating that law unless the officer  has cause to stop the driver for another violation.  If the law had passed as Senate Bill 1351 in its current form, cell phone use while operating a car would  have become a  primary offense a year after it first took effect, that is, on July 1, 2012.

Eight other states and the District of Columbia already have bans on driving while using a cell phone without a hands-free device.  Many other localities nationwide have enacted ordinances with comparable jurisdiction-wide bans on the use of hand-held mobile phone devices while operating a motor vehicle.[8]

As the dangers of cellphone use while driving become increasingly apparent to the public and the extent of driver distraction from such use is shown by more research, a ban on cellphone use while driving will undoubtedly be proposed again in future years in the Virginia legislature, as well as by the governing bodies in other states.  All of us have seen drivers going well under the speed limit, weaving in a lane, or unaware they are driving in the left lane but slower than other traffic and being passed regularly on the right - all while distracted by using a cell phone, and oblivious to their dangerous driving.  Although use of the cell-phone while driving does allow people to take care of business and contact friends and family, which as a form of multi-tasking may seem more efficient,  the very nature of trying to do two things at once means a driver has less focus on their driving. The legislature will have to balance the desire of the public to be able to use their cellphones while driving with the increased danger and likelihood of accidents.   At least this year, the Virginia legislature decided to wait and study the issue further.

About the Author: Scott Fitzgerald is a law clerk with the law firm of Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen. This article is brought to you by the Fredericksburg car crash attorneys of the personal injury law firm. If you have been involved in a car crash, call an experienced car crash attorney in Fredericksburg, Virginia.


[1] See Va. Code § 46.2-1078.1.

[2] To read the text of the proposed bill, see http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?111+ful+SB1351

[3] For legislative history, see http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?111+sum+SB1351.

[4] Chelyen Davis, Cell Bills Pass in Senate Voting, Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star, February 9, 2011, available at http://fredericksburg.com/News/FLS/2011/022011/02092011/606115.

[5] Id.

[6] See 1 in 20 Crashes Linked to Cell Phones, CBS News Report, available at http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/12/02/tech/main531320.shtml.

[7] See Cellphones, Texting, and Driving, The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, available at http://www.iihs.org/research/qanda/cellphones.aspx.

[8] To see a list of laws on cell phone use and driving by state, see http://www.ghsa.org/html/stateinfo/laws/cellphone_laws.html.

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