Drivers in Virginia who text, email, or use their smartphones while behind the wheel are now subject to tougher penalties under a new law that went into effect this summer. The new law makes driving while texting a primary offense, meaning police officers do not need another reason to pull you over if you’re suspected of texting while driving. Under the old rules, a Virginia police officer could not use texting while driving as the sole reason to pull over a driver.
The law is intended to deter distracted driving, which reports state has become a big problem in the Commonwealth. More than 20% of crashes in 2012 were due to distracted driving with more than 1,700 crashes involving drivers using cell phones.
The Cochran Firm DC supports all efforts to increase the safety of Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia residents. With this new law, Virginia joins DC and Maryland, who already have primary-offense texting and driving laws in place.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) also previously banned texting while operating a commercial vehicle. Under the federal rules, commercial drivers can be fined up to $2,750 for drivers and $11,000 for employers who allow or require their employees to use a phone for texting while driving.
Texting while driving is an extremely risky behavior because it requires drivers to take their eyes and concentration off the road. The FMCSA’s research showed that the chances of being in a crash, near-crash, or other accident are 23.2 times greater for commercial vehicle drivers who text while driving than for those who do not engage in this behavior. It is clear that banning texting while driving, which puts the public at a serious risk for harm, is good for the community’s safety.
Drivers who text while driving take their eyes off the road on average about 4.6 seconds out of 6 seconds while texting, according to FMCSA research. This means at 55 miles per hour, the driver is covering a football field’s length without looking at the road. Because of this safety risk, it is in everyone’s safety interest that texting while driving has been made a primary illegal activity. We are confident that this new law will have a positive impact on the safety of Virginia residents.
Under the new law, Virginia police may make a traffic stop after observing illegal conduct. Illegal conduct includes entering multiple letters or text on a cell phone while driving.
Using your phone or car’s GPS while driving, however, will still be permitted under the new law. Drivers can send or read text messages and emails if their car is pulled over to the side of the road or legally stopped at a red light, but it is illegal once the car is in motion.
Some reports have called the GPS exception to the law a “loophole” but it remains to be seen whether it will impair enforcement efforts. The law specifically targets drivers who use their thumb and fingers to enter data into a phone. Drivers often enter their destination into a GPS unit before embarking on a trip, so it’s possible not many drivers will plausibly be able to claim they were using a GPS feature if a police officer catches them entering data into a phone using their fingers.
A conviction under the new law, Virginia Code Sec. 46.2-1078, will cost motorists $125 for a first offense. If you get caught texting while driving in Virginia after that, it’s going to run you $250. The new fine is substantially greater than the previous fine of $20 under the old law for a first texting offense. The fine could go up to $5,000 for a reckless driving charge.
Commenters expect that arrests for drug, alcohol, driving without a license, and other offenses will increase because Virginia police officers can now initiate traffic stops if they spot someone driving while texting.