By Katja Timm
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — Traffic safety advocates are upset by the surprise defeat of legislation that would have prohibited motorists in Virginia from holding their cellphones while driving.
“I think we’re very disappointed,” said Janet Brooking, executive director of DRIVE SMART Virginia, a nonprofit group that promotes traffic safety. “We had been working very hard to make sure the bills advanced.”
For much of the legislative session, the bills appeared headed toward passage.
The House and Senate had each passed slightly different versions of HB 1811, sponsored by Del. Chris Collins, R-Frederick, and SB 1341, sponsored by Sen. Richard Stuart, R-King George.
One version said: “It is unlawful for any person, while driving a moving motor vehicle on the highways in the Commonwealth, to hold a handheld personal communications device.”
Another version said it would be unlawful for a driver “to hold in his hand a handheld personal communications device.”
Looking back, Brooking said amending the bill allowed opponents to sabotage the legislation.
“It’s not about the language of the amendment,” she said. “It’s about what happens to bills like this. The amendment was thrown in there to strategically put the bill in harm’s way.”
When a conference committee of House members and senators convened to resolve the matter the day before the session ended, the legislation was changed significantly. The committee recommended that drivers still be allowed to talk on their cellphones — they just couldn’t “view, read, or enter data.”
The conference committee’s report then was rejected in the House — and so the legislation died.
As a result, the current law, adopted in 2009, remains unchanged: It is illegal to text and send emails while driving, but not to use phone apps such as Snapchat, Facebook or Instagram, or to talk on the phone.
Brooking said she believes that fatalities and accidents would decrease if Virginia had stronger laws to stop driving distractions. That has happened in other states that have implemented “hands-free” driving laws.
In mid-2018, the governor of Georgia signed the “Hands-Free Georgia Act,” which is almost identical to the original versions of the legislation proposed this year in the Virginia General Assembly. The act made it illegal for Georgia motorists to hold a handheld telecommunications device while driving.
Since the law took effect, traffic fatalities have dropped 14 percent in Georgia, according to the Glenda Mitchell Law Firm of Cartersville, Georgia.
Brooking sees a silver lining in the defeat of the “hands-free” bills at the Virginia Capitol. The legislation received widespread media coverage and raised awareness about the problem of drivers using cellphones.
“The press that we got on this bill was unparalleled,” Brooking said. “Through this process, we have educated and raised visibility towards the subject of distracted driving.”
Education and legal changes will be necessary to adequately address the problem, Brooking said. She said safe driving advocates will not give up pushing for stronger laws during the General Assembly’s next session.
“People are still being killed in our roadways,” Brooking said. “We can’t just walk away from this; people are dying.”