Lawmakers move toward text-message ban for drivers

Published 10:24 am Monday, February 23, 2009

A bill seeking to ban text-messaging while driving in Virginia has won an endorsement from the Senate Transportation Committee and now will go to the full Senate for a vote.

House Bill 1876 is sponsored by Delegate John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, who said texting while driving constitutes a “dangerous and irresponsible practice” that causes traffic accidents.

“I really believe that a driver should pay attention to their driving and not be looking at a very small display on a PDA and using both hands to send text to another,” he said.

Last Thursday, the Senate Transportation Committee voted 12-3 in favor of the measure.

Cosgrove’s proposal prohibits driving “while using any handheld personal communications device to manually enter multiple letters or text or to read a text message. This bill provides exemptions for the use of global positioning systems (GPS) and using a wireless telecommunications device to report an emergency.”

Drivers who violate the ban would face fines of $20 for the first offense and $50 for every subsequent violation.

The Transportation Committee members who opposed the bill were Republican Sens. Ken Cuccinelli of Fairfax, Ryan McDougle of Mechanicsville and Ralph Smith of Roanoke. They said the bill could prevent police officers from citing drivers for more serious offenses like reckless driving.

The House had passed the bill by a vote of 88-10 on Feb. 10. Delegates Bill Barlow, D-Smithfield, and Roslyn Tyler, D-Jarratt, were among those in favor.

“It’s common sense,” said Delegate John O’Bannon, R-Henrico, who voted in favor of the bill. “There are several forms of distraction that contribute to accidents, whether it’s a woman putting on her makeup or a man shaving, and this certainly falls under that category.”

Others see the proposal as unnecessary because existing laws require drivers to pay attention when they’re behind the wheel.

“I definitely would oppose such a law as an unnecessary restriction on the rights of the citizenry to the privacy of their activities and communications,” said Bob Barr, the Libertarian Party nominee for president in 2008.

“If a person drives and causes an accident, they already can and should be found liable. [Virginia] is once again trying to restrict the freedom of everyone simply because a minority of people are irresponsible.”

The National Motorists Association also opposes legislation making text-messaging by motorists either a primary or secondary offense.

“We don’t think people should be texting while driving, but there are already reckless driving laws in the books that can be used to punish drivers if they’re clearly being irresponsible,” said Bonnie Sesolak, development director for the group.

However, the wireless industry supports laws against text-messaging while driving, according to John Walls, vice president of public affairs for the CTIA Wireless Association.

“We certainly believe that safety is every driver’s top priority, and anything that can be done to limit the number of all the potential distractions is a good thing,” he said.

Walls said the industry supports hands-free technology for cars as well as education for novice drivers to learn about the dangers of cell phones usage while driving.

“I can’t imagine any situation where a driver should be texting while behind the wheel,” Walls said.

According to a study done by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, one in seven drivers admitted to text-messaging while driving. The study, released in December, says that using a cell phone while driving quadruples the risk of being involved in a car accident.

Currently, seven states and Washington, D.C., ban text-messaging while driving.

Several bills to ban motorists’ use of cell phones entirely have died in the Virginia General Assembly this session.

Proposals by Delegates Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, and Bobby Mathieson, D-Virginia Beach, were left in the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee, and a third from Sen. Patricia Ticer, D-Alexandria, was narrowly defeated in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee. All of the bills included exceptions for hands-free devices.