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Safe driving advocates are steering a fresh push to make motorists put down the qwerty keyboard and focus on the road.
And they’ve found allies in two policy makers who are near political polar opposites.
Del. Ben Cline, a Rockbridge County Republican and prosecutor, has teamed with Del. Scott Surovell, a Fairfax County Democrat and defense lawyer, on a quest to toughen penalties for texting while driving.
Legislation that duo is backing for the 2013 General Assembly session would make a vehicle operator’s use of a handheld communication device, such as a smart phone, for anything other than a voice phone call a crime punishable as reckless driving.
It would also negate Virginia’s current texting law.
Approved in 2009, it limits when charges can be filed against texting scofflaws — police can only do so if they first stop a driver for another traffic infraction.
The $20 fine that charge carries for an initial offense increases to $50 for subsequent violations.
Texting, e-mailing, web surfing or similar conduct while driving would instead be a class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $2,500 fine or 12 months in jail, under the proposed House Bill 1360.
As written, the bill would not ban drivers from making or receiving phone calls while operating a vehicle.
Cline and Surovell said their evolving views on the subject have led them on a drive to strengthen the state’s texting prohibition.
Anticipating debate to come over the measure, Cline noted that because other code sections specify certain behaviors that constitute reckless driving, it’s appropriate to add a potentially dangerous activity like texting to the list.
Another factor that influenced the pair is the outcome of a Northern Virginia case earlier this year stemming from the May 2011 death of a college student struck by another driver who police determined was texting at the time of the fatal crash.
When the case came to trial this year, a judge acquitted the driver of reckless driving, ruling that evidence of his texting wasn’t sufficient to justify a conviction on that charge under current law, Surovell said.
Surovell represented the slain driver’s family in a civil action against the other driver.
Cline and Surovell are supported in their effort by the Virginia Coalition For Distraction Free Driving, a group of insurers, highway safety specialists, health care providers, and law enforcement officials.
The coalition points to several studies, including 2009 findings by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which concluded that texting and driving posed the highest risk of all cell phone related tasks they measured.
Cline and Surovell got another boost Dec. 5 when the Virginia State Crime Commission conceptually endorsed their bill ahead of the legislative session.
But if the commission debate before that vote is an indication, there are a number of sticky legal questions confronting lawmakers.
Among them: how would police distinguish between someone dialing a cell phone and texting, would a tougher texting ban make Virginia a de facto hands-free state, and what about devices like iPods that aren’t used to communicate but nonetheless can distract drivers.
Del. John Cosgrove, whose amended 2009 bill codified the texting ban, said he supports putting more teeth into the law.
“It’s about time,” the Republican lawmaker said. “It wasn’t my idea to make it a secondary offense and a $20 fine.”