Virginia cracking down on texting while driving

Sam Isaacs
Staff Writer

Members of the House and Senate are optimistic that bills aimed at increasing the punishment for texting while driving will pass after surviving crossover day, a deadline on which bills passed by one chamber are sent to the other side of the legislative branch.

In the Virginia General Assembly, if a bill doesn’t make it out of the House or Senate by the crossover deadline, it dies.

At the start of the session, three such bills were filed in the Senate and seven in the House. If a bill has not made it out of the House or Senate by the deadline, it is left on table. Beginning Wednesday, the House can consider only bills approved by the Senate, and the Senate can consider only legislation passed by the House.

Senator George Barker, D-Alexandria, is the chief patron of two of the Senate bills that were incorporated in a texting-while-driving bill that ultimately passed the Senate during crossover. He is hopeful that the House will approve it as well.

“We have been trying this for a few years and have been gradually making progress. I think the odds look good this year,” Barker said.

Last year, his bill to increase the penalties for texting while driving passed the Senate but died in a House committee.

The current bill, Senate Bill 1222, is sponsored primarily by Senator Thomas Norment, R-Williamsburg. If passed, the bill would increase the fine for texting while driving to $250 for a first offense and $500 dollars for a second offense. (The existing penalties are $20 for a first offense and $50 for subsequent offenses. They were set in 2009 when the General Assembly passed the current law against texting while driving.)

The bill would also make texting while driving a primary offense. Currently, drivers can only be fined for texting while driving if they have been stopped for another violation.

Although the bill would not make texting while driving punishable as reckless  driving, it would create a $500 minimum fine if the individual was caught texting during reckless driving.

Barker’s bills were incorporated by Senator Norment’s similar bill Monday. Norment’s bill was passed by the Senate Tuesday and is currently waiting for House action.

The House also passed similar texting while driving legislation before crossover. HB 1907 mirrors Norment’s bill: It would make texting while driving a primary offense and drastically increase the fines for an infraction. Delegate Rich Anderson, R-Woodbridge, said this could be the year such a bill passes.

“It has a strong support, and a lot of people are committed to it. In prior years, there wasn’t as much focus on how much of a real danger this is,” he said.

Delegate David Bulova, D-Fairfax, said a recent event had a strong influence on the General Assembly’s attitude toward texting a “tragedy to the highest extreme.”

In May 2011, Kyle Rowley, a college student, was killed by a man presumed to be texting while driving in Fairfax County. When the case went to trial this past September, the judge dropped the reckless driving charge against the driver.

The reason: The penalty for texting while driving is $20, and the offense counts as a minor traffic infraction. The judge ruled that it could not count as reckless driving.

“The situation was shocking to the General Assembly. We were appalled,” Bulova said. “You could see why the judge would rule that way. He wasn’t wrong; we were.”

The bill passed the House on Tuesday with 92 affirmative votes.

Bulova hopes the bipartisan support in the House and Senate will make 2013 the year Virginia targets texting while driving.

“We want to send a strong message that it is the driver’s primary responsibility to pay attention and monitor themselves while they drive,” he said.

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