How proposed distracting driving law could impact Va. drivers

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — When should you be able to use your phone while driving? That’s the basis of a bipartisan bill lawmakers are debating in Richmond.

Del. Chris Collins (R-Frederick) introduced the legislation. He’s a former police officer and a lawyer.

“The goal is to try and prevent people from utilizing their phone in such a way that they take their eyes off the road for a significant amount of time. That’s where accidents are caused,” said Collins.

Right now, drivers can get fined for reading emails and texts or typing to communicate while driving.

But other screen time is still legal.

“So if an officer pulls somebody over and they say, ‘I saw you texting.’ And they say, ‘Oh, no. I was on Facebook. I was Facebooking.’ That’s not a crime and so a case would be dismissed in court,” said Collins.

His bill, HB181, would change that. It says any use of a handheld device, like a cell phone, that “substantially diverts the driver’s attention” should be punishable by a fine of up to $500.

There would be exceptions for working emergency personnel, drivers reporting emergencies and drivers who are lawfully parked or stopped.

It passed the House.

In the Senate, there is a push to make it even stricter.

Lawmakers in that chamber are considering a substitute that would make Virginia a hands free state, like neighboring West Virginia.

That way, any time a driver is in motion behind the wheel, they can’t have a phone in their hands at all.

Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) introduced the substitute.

Under his proposal, drivers would be able to use their device for GPS or music only if mounted to the windshield.

“Hands free is a better way to go,” Surovell said on the Senate floor Monday. “It’s easier to enforce.”

The substitute was agreed to.

But Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) did not support it. He thought it was too vague.

He said people could be punished for checking the time on their phone or for not having a tool to connect their GPS to the windshield.

“I suggest if we pass this, it’ll be the most violated law in the books that exists,” said Obenshain.

After discussion, the Senate decided to pass on a vote Monday.

Other possible changes are expected before lawmakers have a final vote. That includes how to ensure law enforcement uniformly enforce the law and that they track who is getting punished for violating it.

Collins said he has heard both sides of the debate and believes the legislation he introduced is a good compromise.

“As technology grows, I’m sure we will all be moving toward hands free,” he said. “But for right now I think, at least for the Virginia legislature, they’re a little cautious about that.”

The last day of session is March 10.

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