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TMCNet:  Va. crime panel backs bill to combat texting while driving

[December 06, 2012]

Va. crime panel backs bill to combat texting while driving

Dec 06, 2012 (Richmond Times-Dispatch - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- The Virginia State Crime Commission on Wednesday endorsed legislation that would add texting while driving to the definition of reckless driving, building momentum for a crackdown in the upcoming General Assembly session.

Under current state law, texting while driving is punishable by a $20 fine for a first offense and by a $50 fine for subsequent violations. Under the reckless-driving statute, it would be punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.

Dels. Benjamin L. Cline, R-Rockbridge, and Scott A. Surovell, D-Fairfax, advocated the legislation Wednesday morning during a news conference at the General Assembly Building. Cline, a prosecutor, and Surovell, a defense attorney, noted that they often disagree on criminal-justice issues, but they're united on the need to deter texting while driving.

Under Cline's bill, a driver's use of a hand-held cellphone "for something other than verbal communication" would constitute reckless driving.

"It's an issue that affects everybody, because most everybody has one of these," Cline said, holding up his cellphone, "and most everybody drives." The combination "has proven deadly for many in Virginia and across the country," he said.

Surovell added: "We need to have punishments that are commensurate with the danger that the activity presents." Under Virginia's current law, texting while driving is a secondary offense, which means a driver could be cited only if pulled over for another offense.

Under Cline's reckless-driving approach, a driver could be cited for texting alone, or for any other nonverbal use of a cellphone, such as reading email, surfing the Web, playing a video game or watching a video.

Cline's bill would repeal the current state law that makes texting while driving a lesser offense.

The Virginia State Crime Commission, which has been studying the texting-while-driving problem, endorsed Cline's bill Wednesday afternoon.

"It is absolutely a problem," said Del. G. Manoli Loupassi, R-Richmond, a crime commission member. Loupassi proposed that the commission endorse the bill explaining: "I can essentially agree to this today with the idea that it may be that we come to the conclusion that ultimately we're just going to have to do away with even touching the phone." State Sen. Janet D. Howell, D-Fairfax, said, "The crime commission feels that this is an urgent matter and needs to be handled." She said she wants to be sure committees considering the bill in the legislature understand that "the commission feels strongly that texting while driving is a problem." Crime commission endorsement of legislation does not ensure passage but carries weight with lawmakers.

Surovell noted that he left Fairfax on Wednesday morning en route to Richmond for the news conference. In the Prince William County stretch alone, he said he counted seven motorists who were texting while driving.

Cline said AAA found in a survey that while 98 percent of respondents think texting while driving should be prohibited, 33 percent of the public admits doing it.

Gov. Bob McDonnell said last week that he thinks the state's current "blanket laws" against reckless driving and aggressive driving cover behaviors such as texting while driving.

Cline and Surovell say a Fairfax County court case shows that legislators need to clarify the law so that police and prosecutors charge cellphone offenders under the stricter statute.

In the Fairfax case, an 18-year-old college student was struck and killed by a driver who was believed to have been texting while driving. The judge dismissed the charge of reckless driving because Virginia had the law on the books that made texting while driving a lesser crime.

Cline and Surovell were joined at the news conference by Janet Brooking, representing The Virginia Coalition for Distraction Free Driving, a broad group that backs the legislation. It includes safety advocates, AAA, trauma centers, the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, insurance businesses and bicycling groups.

Cline acknowledged that some law-enforcement officials have raised questions about enforcement, noting the difficulty of determining whether a driver is texting or punching in a phone number.

"Sure, a cleaner bill would be to just prohibit all cellphone use" by drivers, Cline said, "but we want a bill that can pass." (804) 649-6645 (804) 649-6340 ___ (c)2012 Richmond Times-Dispatch (Richmond, Va.) Visit the Richmond Times-Dispatch (Richmond, Va.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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