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New law takes aim at distracted driving

New law takes aim at distracted driving

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Holding a cell phone while driving is now illegal in the state of Virginia. The law, which was passed by the Virginia General Assembly during its 2020 legislative session, went into effect on Jan. 1 and gives law enforcement the ability to pull over a driver for the primary offense of holding their phone. 

A primary offense refers to any crime or violation that allows police to pull over a driver for that reason alone. A secondary offense is one where a motorist can be charged after being stopped for the primary offense.

Texting while driving was banned in Virginia in 2007, and in 2012 became a primary offense. Passing a law to ban the general operation of a phone while driving has been a long time coming, according to Orange County Sheriff Mark Amos.

“The General Assembly has been looking into changing this law for several years,” Amos said in an email. “It either got shot down or minor changes were made in the law over the past several years. The Virginia Sheriffs’ Association monitors and lobbies for and against potential legislation, which keeps all sheriffs informed.”

People caught violating the handheld phone law will face a fine of $125 on their first offense and $250 on subsequent offenses. Drivers cited for holding a phone while driving through a work (construction) zone automatically will be fined $250.

Amos said police will still have the freedom to decide how a driver caught breaking the new law will be charged.

“When it comes to traffic stops, law enforcement officers are given the discretion to warn, summons or arrest,” Amos said. “This will be up to the individual officer that makes the traffic stop.”

There are also some exceptions to the law. According to Orange Police Chief Jim Fenwick, emergency vehicle operators and anyone making an emergency call (such as dialing 911) are exempt. This includes police officers as well. However, Fenwick said that he intends to make sure his department acts in responsible manner.

“While it may be lawful for law enforcement officers and other emergency vehicle operators to use their phone, it’s not necessarily the best practice,” Fenwick said. “We’re stressing using hands free [devices]. Number one, we want to drive safe too, and want to set a good example for others.”

So far, Fenwick said that his officers have written two summonses for people violating the law. He emphasized that because the law has just gone into effect, his department has relatively little data about its enforcement.

“We have a grace period of enforcement,” Fenwick said. “So, I don’t have any statistics yet on what we’ve actually done, but officers are aware of it. They’re aware of the different parts of the exemptions and things like that.”

As of this year, 25 states ban all drivers, regardless of age, from using handheld cell phones, according to information from the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Despite support from state law enforcement and driver safety organizations, such as Drive Smart Virginia, the law did raise some objections when it was taken up by the General Assembly last year.

“I know one of the reasons Virginia has taken so long to pass this law, is there were concerns that it would be used for profiling,” Fenwick said.

After members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus spoke out about their fear that the law could unfairly target drivers of color, the bill was amended to require police departments to make statistics on demographics available. Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, a prominent member of the caucus, sponsored the bill in the House of Delegates.

There is enthusiasm for the law in the insurance industry as well. Wayne Modena, a State Farm insurance agent in Orange, said his company has been advocating for stronger safety requirements since they pushed for seat belt laws in cars decades ago.

“With the highway speeds and type of roads we have now, a split second can make a big difference on hitting a deer, hitting another car or hitting a child,” Modena said. “Anything we can do to diminish or slow distracted driving is a big improvement.”

Many newer vehicles come with hands-free Bluetooth capability, allowing drivers to control their phone, make calls and listen to music through buttons on their steering wheel or dash. These do not fall under the handheld law. For people with older vehicles, some safer and legal options include attaching a hands-free cell phone mount on the dash and using voice commands via Siri or Google Assistant.

Fenwick said if something is important, a driver can simply pull over in a safe area and park their car to make a call or send a text.

“This is a tool, not a weapon,” Fenwick said. “The purpose of this code change is to make the road safer for everyone.”

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