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Law targets texting while driving
Area police support bills
Monday, February 11, 2013
By SAM JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer
Proposed changes to Virginia’s law against texting while driving could have significant consequences for drivers who have active thumbs while behind the wheel.
Currently, Virginia law lists texting while driving as a secondary offense for which a citation can be issued only if someone already has been cited for another offense, such as speeding. The penalty is a $20 fine for a first offense and $50 for a second or subsequent offense.
However, separate pieces of legislation — SB 1222 and HB 1907 — that passed the General Assembly last week would make texting while driving a primary offense and increase fines to $250 for a first violation and $500 for a second. A primary offense means a law enforcement officer can stop a driver on a suspicion of the offense, not necessarily in connection with another infraction.
The bills also increase the punishment of any person convicted of reckless driving to include a $500 mandatory minimum fine if that person was texting at the time of the reckless driving offense, according to the Virginia Legislative Information System.
Martinsville Police Chief Mike Rogers said Friday that should the bills become law, they could become a better deterrent to texting behind the wheel, thereby making the streets safer.
“I don’t think people realize the seriousness of having their attention diverted from driving,” he said. “It only takes a split second of looking down to cause a serious accident.”
The American Automobile Association’s (AAA) Foundation for Traffic Safety’s website lists texting among the factors contributing to “distracted driving.” The foundation’s site says distracted driving contributes to 16 percent of fatal accidents, or about 5,000 deaths per year.
“Even hands-free talking on a cell phone — you may not think it’s a distraction, but it is,” said Virginia State Police Sgt. Rob Carpentieri. “It is a concern, just like seat belt usage is.”
Carpentieri cited the lack of safety belt usage as a more major problem leading to fatal accidents in Henry and Patrick counties, but he said it is difficult to pin down exactly how much impact texting has in a crash.
“If someone has a wreck and you ask what they were doing, they’re not going to admit they were texting,” he said.
The changes to state laws could change that. Carpentieri said the current law limits what police can do when they see drivers using their phones while they drive since enforcing the law requires another infraction to be involved.
“It’s not hard for us to catch, really,” he said. “If you see someone texting while driving down the road, it’s hard to enforce; it’s not hard to catch.”
Still, the number of convictions in the state for texting while driving is increasing. According to Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) data, the number of convictions statewide has grown from 63 in 2009 to 224 in 2010, and 316 in 2011. In Henry County during that span, however, there have been two convictions, and none in the city of Martinsville, the DMV said.
Still, Rogers said police are more cognizant of the dangers of texting because they see cases where it has had more severe consequences.
“I feel like every one of our officers is more aware of the dangers of texting because they’ve seen the accidents,” he said.
Rogers said he hopes the large increase in fines in the House and Senate bills would be a “deterrent to a lot of young people.”
“I know I don’t want to ride down a two-lane road and meet somebody texting,” he said.