During their 2019 session, both the Virginia House of Delegates and the state Senate passed hands-free driving legislation which would make it illegal to drive a car with a cell phone in your hand. For a brief time, it looked as though Virginia would join the 16 other states and Washington, DC that have already passed similar laws. However, on the last day the General Assembly was in session, the two chambers could not agree on the final language in the ban, so the effort was scrapped until at least 2020.
The Current State of the Law on Cell Phones and Driving in Virginia
Virginia already has a law on the books that makes it illegal to “manually enter multiple letters or text in the device as a means of communicating with another person,” or to “read any email or text message transmitted to the device or stored within the device.” In other words, texting and emailing while driving is unlawful. Typing a phone number into your device to make a call while driving, holding the phone to use GPS, and talking on the phone while holding it are not forbidden under this statute, which was originally passed in 2009. The original law made a violation a secondary offense, which meant law enforcement could not pull over a driver just for a violation of that code section. It also set forth weak penalties of only $20 for an initial violation and $50 for a subsequent violation.
In 2013, the General Assembly added some teeth to the law by increasing the initial fine from $20 to $125. Subsequent offenses would result in a $250 fine. Even more importantly, violation of this law became a primary offense, which means that law enforcement can initiate a traffic stop if they witnessed a driver violating this law. The core aspects of the law have not been changed since 2013, even though there have been efforts to strengthen the law in the General Assembly almost every year since.
The Proposed Changes in 2019
The bill, as first proposed in the 2019 session, would have made amended Va. Code § 46.2-1078.1 to make it “unlawful for any person to operate a moving motor vehicle on the highways in the Commonwealth while using any handheld personal communications device.” The proposal would have exempted any instance where the device was specifically designed and configured to allow hands-free and voice operation and was being used in that manner.
However, amendments to the original language weakened the intent of the legislation and ultimately killed the bill in 2019. The phrase “while physically manipulating the device to view, read, or enter data” was added to the proposal. Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax) pointed out that the change would not make it unlawful to hold a phone and talk on it while driving, since you can talk on a phone without viewing, reading, or entering data. The amended proposal was voted down by the House of Delegates in a 45-50 vote. Any efforts towards a hands-free law will have to wait until 2020.
Despite mounting data showing the dangers of distracted driving, many people continue to text and drive every day. If you or someone you know has been injured by a distracted driver, call the law firm of Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen.