Saturday, June 29, 2013

Texting and Emailing While Driving Can be Reckless of July 1

On July 1, 2013, a new Virginia Law goes into effect makes it clear that writing or reading emails or text messages is now a primary offense for which a driver may be stopped.  The law also makes clear that if someone is convicted of Reckless Driving and Texting/Emailing While Driving, there is a mandatory minimum fine of $250.

Some of the media coverage about this new law has indicated that people can use their GPS while driving.  Other stories have suggested that the law contains a loophole for other behaviors such as using Facebook, Twitter, or playing Angry Birds - this is wrong.  Some people have suggested that it should cover picking up a cigarette, putting on makeup or reading the newspaper while driving - this is unnecessary.  I requested an opinion from the Attorney General to clear some of this up which he issued on June 28, 2013 and was covered in today's Virginian Pilot.

First, here's some background.  For at least the last sixty years, Reckless Driving has been illegal and is a Class 1 Misdemeanor.  There are about ten specific things that are Reckless Driving (such as driving 20 MPH over the speed limit) and a general catch-all statute.  Here's the broad statute:
§ 46.2-852. Reckless driving; general rule.
Irrespective of the maximum speeds permitted by law, any person who drives a vehicle on any highway recklessly or at a speed or in a manner so as to endanger the life, limb, or property of any person shall be guilty of reckless driving.
Class 1 Misdemeanors have a maximum punishment of twelve months in jail, a $2500 fine, and Reckless Driving also provides for an optional six months driver's license suspension. 
As smartphones began to proliferate, in 2009, some legislators felt that it was necessary to pass a more specific statute relating to texting and emailing so that the law clearly banned it.  The legislature passed 46.2-1078.1 which you can read here, but it was made a secondary offense so you could not be stopped for only texting or emailing while driving.

Some lawyers argued successfully in Court that by adopting a statute that was more specific than Reckless Driving, the legislature had effectively decriminalized texting and emailing while driving.  The most notable case was right here in Fairfax County.

Kyle Rowley's car ran out of gas coming home from his summer job on Route 7.  He turned on his flashers and got out of his car to push it off of the road.  Jason Gage struck Kyle from behind at full speed without breaking with 1000 feet of straight, level, clear roadway in light traffic.  Kyle was killed instantly.  A forensic analysis of Gage's phone showed seven text messages sent and received over the 10 minutes leading up to the collision.  I represented Kyle's family in the civil suit. 

A Fairfax County General District Court judge dismissed the Reckless Driving charges against Gage because no one could prove any driving behavior separate and apart from possible texting and the General Assembly had specifically passed 46.2-1078.1.  He also criticized the legislature for passing the texting statute in the first place because it made it harder to prosecute. 

This year, I introduced the first legislation to fix the problem with Delegate Ben Cline.  I was ultimately a Co-Sponsor of a broad bipartisan effort that only had 12 no votes on the final vote.   My floor comments are at the right.

Due to misleading and confusing media coverage, I requested an opinion from the Attorney General to clarify the law before July 1.  His opinion makes it clear:
It is my opinion that, on and after July 1, 2013, if a driver operates a vehicle on a highway recklessly or at a speed in a manner so as to endanger the life, limb, or property of any person, while using a hand held personal communication device, that driver can be charged and convicted of reckless driving regardless of whether there are grounds to support a violation of§ 46.2-1078.1.
In other words, no matter what you are doing in your car, if it causes you to drive in a manner that endangers life, limb or property, you can be convicted of Reckless Driving.  We do not need a statute for changing your make-up, reading the newspaper, or picking up a baby bottle to make it illegal driving behavior. 

With this legislation, Virginia joins 34 other states that have made texting/emailing while driving a primary offense

Virginia should only allow the hand's free use of an electronic device.  Numerous studies have shown that distracted driving has become the cause of most accidents in the United States.  This issue not only affects our safety on the highways, but it affects our pocket books.   Every fender bender not only causes more traffic delays but it increases our premiums.  I hope to convince my colleagues to move in that direction next year.

No comments:

Post a Comment