Virginia Texting and Driving Law: Up to Speed?

In Virginia, by now drivers should be aware that it is against the law to text and drive.  You can read the current code § 46.2-1078.1, here.  A new ramped up penalty structure and enforcement measures are set to take effect this July, 2013.  If you have been charged with reckless driving, whether or not it involves text messaging, you may wish to speak with a Northern Virginia traffic lawyer.

[kc_font_pac_2_font_9 size="26" color="#000000"]Although there seems to be a consensus that texting and driving is a problem in the public’s view[i], the new measures have sparked some debate:[/kc_font_pac_2_font_9]

Is the new law, as one Washington Post writer puts it, one with more “bark than bite,” and “toothless?”

The critic points out that it may be possible for dishonest drivers to misstate the truth to get out of a ticket, since the ban applies only to texting (with some exceptions) and not to making a phone call or using a phone’s GPS system.

 

Virginia Texting and Driving Law Changes – What Drivers Need to Know

The first thing is the amount of money you could be ordered to pay if found guilty of “texting and driving.” Fines are set to increase more than six-fold: from $20 up to $125 for first time offenders.  Subsequent offenders will pay $250: a five-fold increase from the current $50 fine.  These numbers were actually doubled, but Governor Bob McDonnell requested lawmakers reduce the fees by 50%.  In other words, originally the fines were $250 and $500, for first and subsequent offenders respectively.

Secondly, it will be easier for you to get caught.  Currently, texting while driving is a “secondary” offense in Virginia (as opposed to a “primary” offense), which means that the police must have some other reason to pull a driver over before a citation can be issued.  After the new changes are in effect, a police officer who merely observes a driver texting can initiate a traffic stop.

[kc_heading_pac_18_headline_2 size="16" color="#000000" ]Texting and Driving is a Problem[/kc_heading_pac_18_headline_2]

Almost all of us have cellphones – (87%) – and most of us with cellphones send text messages. (In 2012, 2.27 trillion texts were sent).

This presents a problem, because according to a report sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation, cellphones are distracting:

[kc_background_pac_2_highlight_7 size="14" color="#000000"]“[s]ending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, the equivalent-at 55 mph-of driving the length of an entire football field, blind.”[/kc_background_pac_2_highlight_7]

And people die from distracted drivers…

What the Controversy is Really About

northern virginia texting reckless drivingDespite the increased fines and enforcement measures set to take effect in just a couple of months, a recent Washington Post article (mentioned above) expresses the view that the new measures are “toothless,” and not without  “loopholes.” Specifically, the author thinks the law is too narrow.

How then, that author wonders, will police enforce a law that people can so easily lie their way out of?

While the author’s point is understood by many, it assumes that on a large scale, people will lie to a police officer.

On the other side of the coin, there is no such thing as a “perfect law.” We may have to adapt and change as time goes on, and that is exactly what the plan is.  It is no easy task to come up with a law that satisfactorily can balance privacy, technological changes, and enforcement feasibility.

Many other issues will potentially creep up later:

  • How will police reasonably suspect a driver is texting, if the officer has no familiarity with the phone model that the driver is using?
  • Will police receive proper training to spot offending drivers, and if so, what will that training consist of?
  • Will police officers rely solely on the driver’s honesty, or will they be able to write a ticket based on their own observations?
  • What will constitute a “reckless driving” version of the texting and driving offense?

Some contend it will be difficult – if not impossible – to enforce.   After all, in some situations we could be talking about an officer claiming to have seen a small screen, through two panes of  glass (sometimes darkly tinted), and at various speeds, and in all types of weather conditions.  Could this difficulty be a part of the reason why texting and driving has been a secondary offense until now (or, up until July, 2013)?

Fairfax County Police Capt. Susan Culin, traffic division commander, commenting on the difficulties raised above, had this to say:

  • “While this law is a step in the right direction, we still have a ways to go,”

  • “It will still be very difficult for officers to determine if the vehicle operator is dialing their phone or accessing GPS, versus texting.”

Some cellphone users send text messages by typing on a touch-screen, while others have a miniature keyboard. Some cellphones are easiest to use with one hand, while others are commonly used with two.

On the point of training mentioned above, Virginia Governor, Bob McDonnell has reportedly called on divisions to implement special training for law enforcement to effectively implement and enforce the texting and driving law.

In light of the concerns on both sides of this “honesty” issue, the following question is bound to be on the minds of many:

Should Virginia Ban Cellphone Use When Driving, Period?

Should Virginia ban all cellphone use, except for hands-free devices?  Should hands-free devices be banned, too?  Please let us know your opinion in the comments section below.

Some topics for discussion:

Many people make important phone calls while commuting.  Mothers and fathers call to check on children or elderly family members, and businessmen and women assist customers and clients on the go all the time.   Our work-obsessed culture does not just sit in traffic: many of us work in traffic.  If you are one of these people, would you be willing to fore-go your in-car work habits for a broader cellphone ban in Virginia? (leave your comments below).

If the government can tell citizens what they can and cannot do with cellphones while driving, where should the line be drawn?  Should there be a line?

Amidst the uncertainty, one thing is for sure:  to strike the most appropriate and effective balance between notions of privacy, public safety, enforcement feasibility, and rapid development of technology, the lawmakers in Virginia (and other states) will need to be patient, lawyers will need to be patient, and journalists will need to be patient.  Instead of over-legislating, it makes sense to this lawyer at least, that we approach the problem of “distracted  drivers” methodically and without a knee-jerk response to reports or statistics.  The new law is a step in the right direction, and it is “better safe than sorry” (better not to over-legislate).

For the latest updates on this and other Virginia traffic law issues, subscribe to our Traffic Law eNewsletter here.  Our next article is sure to ignite some controversy, as we will discuss the recent suggest to lower the drunk driving standard from .08 to .05.

Image Credits:
Cartoon: by tenderliving via Flickr
Man texting:Image courtesy of [stockimages] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net published on 16 November 2012
Stock Photo – image ID: 100113749


[i] (read a few comments from the public)

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Brenton D. Vincenzes is a lifelong Fairfax County resident and Fairfax Criminal Defense Lawyer who protects and serves those charged with criminal and traffic offenses in Northern Virginia. He is a member of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and has been certified by the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission. As a local leader, Mr. Vincenzes mentors troubled youths, volunteers his time to serve at his church, takes private and court appointed indigent clients, and strives to improve the community. Mr. Vincenzes serves juveniles, adults, and families through his zealous and diligent advocacy, strategic planning, and skilled trial work. Mr. Vincenzes' areas of criminal law practice are broad, and include most felonies and misdemeanors such as: reckless driving, DUI & DWI, drug offenses, assault and battery, domestic violence, assault on an officer, destruction of property, alcohol offenses, firearm offenses, larceny, shoplifting, embezzlement, fraud, and other theft offenses, and moving traffic violations among others. Mr. Vincenzes also offers estate planning services, including Wills, Trusts, and Powers of Attorney. His private legal services are available in most Northern Virginia jurisdictions, including Fairfax County, Arlington County, Prince William County, Loudoun County, Stafford County, Alexandria, Manassas, Leesburg, South Riding, and other cities and towns.

Comments

Comments

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