Distracted driving legislation hits roadblock in VA Senate

Distracted driving legislation hits roadblock in VA Senate

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Several state legislators working to pass laws to reduce traffic accidents caused by distracted driving hit a wall on Tuesday. In particular, they were hoping to put more teeth into Virginia's ban on texting and emailing while driving.

Legislators passed Virginia's ban on texting and emailing while driving three years ago, but law officers have complained that it's hard to enforce. Drivers are still allowed to dial cell phones in their hands, make phone calls, even play games.

"The existing law they can't even enforce. You have a phone in your hand, no one can tell what that person is doing with that phone in their hand. You get pulled over, all you have to do is say, 'I was playing Angry Birds,' and that's totally legal. That's ridiculous," said Senator Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax).

Surovell introduced a bill that would only allow the use of a cell phone "hands free" while driving. Phones would have to be operated through Bluetooth or be mounted on the dashboard.

The bill was passed by indefinitely by the Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday. However, Surovell says he hopes to revive the bill Wednesday.

A coalition of legislators, law officers, and safe driving advocates, including Drive Smart Virginia, gathered to urge the passing of a series of bills aimed at reducing distracted driving.

Legislators say a NHTSA study shows fatal accidents rose for the first time in fifty years.

"From Jan. 1 to Dec. 31 of 2016, 175 Virginians died on our highways as a result of distracted driving," said Del. Rich Anderson (R-Woodbridge). "And on top of that, another 14,700 Virginians were injured, all the way from slight injury to permanent disability as a result of the accident."

Former Manassas police officer Heather Munsterman spoke about suffering a traumatic brain injury three years ago when she was hit at a traffic stop by a distracted driver.

"They couldn't give me pain medication, because I had sustained a traumatic brain injury," said Munsterman. "They were operating on me while I was wide awake. I've sustained several surgeries. I'm in pain every day. Obviously, its very hard for me to speak about."

The group also discussed several other bills proposed to help curb distracted driving.

Anderson announced that his bill would add to the existing texting ban, saying it "expands it to include things like posting on Facebook, playing games, watching Youtube. It also takes these provisions and puts in a new section of code for distracted driving."

Anderson's bill would expand the ban to when a vehicle is stopped in the roadway, not just in operation, but would not affect drivers using GPS or accessing a stored phone number to place a call.

Another bill would ban hand-held use of a cell phone in a work zone.

Delegate Ron Villanueva (R-Virginia Beach) has proposed letting people who sign up for E-Z Pass electronic toll collection to elect to donate a dollar to the Drive Smart Virginia Education Fund.

And Delegate Tag Greason (R - Loudoun) has proposed creating a license plate to raise awareness about distracted driving. For each plate sold, $10 would be used to promote safe driving.

Surovell also introduced a bill to make it a class one misdemeanor for drivers who injure bicyclists or pedestrians due to distracted driving, punishable by license suspension.

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