Bipartisan support for texting-while-driving ban in Va.

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Local,Virginia,Steve Contorno

Support is building in Virginia for tougher rules against drivers who can't keep their thumbs off their phones and on their steering wheels.

Dels. Benjamin Cline, R-Amherst, and Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, introduced a bill Wednesday that makes texting while driving a primary offense, meaning police can pull over someone spotted operating a hand-held device on the road. Current law only allows police to cite offenders if they're committing another crime while driving, like speeding.

Under the bill, texting, emailing and similar activities while behind the wheel would become "reckless driving," a Class 1 misdemeanor that could result in up to one year in prison, a $2,500 fine or both.

Similar legislation never made its way to the governor's desk in recent years. But the Virginia State Police began collecting data this year on traffic accidents linked to texting and through October found drivers were texting prior to a crash in 63 cases. More than half of those incidents were caused by people ages 21 to 30.

A Fairfax County judge recently ripped the General Assembly for categorizing texting while driving as a minor offense, punishable by a $20 fine. The judge said he was forced to throw out a reckless-driving charge against a driver who was texting when he struck and killed a man in Dranesville in 2011.

"Momentum was already building prior to that, but that will push it," said Sen. George Barker, an Alexandria Democrat who has urged a crackdown on phone use while driving for years. "The public sees it all of the time, and public support will have particular weight this year."

But changes to the law will remain hard to enforce, said Del. Dave Albo, R-Springfield. People can still be distracted by their phones in ways not covered by the law, like searching for a number to call, and it's hard for police to tell the difference between that and texting.

"What if I'm setting up my GPS on my phone?" Albo said. "Something has to be done, and I think we'll pass something, but the issue is a lot more complicated than people think."

Police departments are frustrated that they can't nab obvious offenders under the current law without another violation to slap them with. In Fairfax County, police often cite people spotted texting with "failure to give full time and attention to driving" and have handed out nearly 24,000 tickets for that offense in the past two years.

"According to officers, the current texting-while-driving law has some loopholes," said Lucy Caldwell, spokeswoman for the Fairfax County Police Department. "Officers feel that the current law is not much of a deterrent."

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

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