The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
State’s distracted-driving law comes under fire
BY SCOTT SHENK
Spotsylvania County’s top prosecutor says problems with distracted-driving laws remind him of the old days when drunken driving wasn’t taken seriously enough.
DUI laws eventually were stiffened, but only after deadly crashes piled up, said Bill Neely, Spotsylvania’s veteran commonwealth’s attorney.
The same thing might be happening in Virginia with distracted driving, he said.
In recent years distracted driving has become a target for federal transportation authorities. They say the problem, primarily text messaging and calling, is dangerous and growing. Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board asked for a full ban.
There are 39 states that ban texting while driving. Ten states have laws against drivers using cellphones, which are the primary target because so many drivers use them to talk on or text while behind the wheel.
Virginia has a distracted-driving law, too, but it has come under fire. A Fairfax County judge and prosecutor criticized the law in a distracted-driving case recently covered by The Washington Post.
In that case, an Alexandria man was charged in 2011 with reckless driving after he ran into and killed a college student who was pushing his car, which had run out of gas, according to the paper. The investigation showed that the driver had been texting around the time of the crash. But the judge said that, according to the law, texting while driving isn’t proof of reckless driving and he dropped the charge.
Neely and Stafford County Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Olsen agree that the law has problems that should be fixed.
“I think we need a stronger option for distracted driving as a whole,” said Olsen.
Neely said lawmakers should have known this would be a problem.
“The General Assembly was warned” when it enacted the 2009 law that it was weak, he said. “The law needs to be changed.”
Both said they’ve lost cases involving distracted driving because of issues with the law.
Virginia’s law against drivers using handheld devices is a secondary offense that carries a $20 fine. It’s also a secondary offense for novice drivers to use a handheld device. A secondary violation means police cannot bring the charge unless the suspect driver is stopped for another offense.
While every case is different, Olsen said determining an actual charge for distracted drivers can be difficult. Police and prosecutors often charge suspected distracted drivers with reckless driving. But that charge often doesn’t rise to the reckless level, which requires a disregard for others.
In some of those cases, judges have lowered the charge to improper driving, which Olsen said is something only a judge can do. In others, the charge has been dropped altogether, which is what happened in the Fairfax case.
“Texting right now is a problem,” Neely said.
More than 3,000 people nationwide died and another 419,000 were injured in distracted-driving crashes in 2010, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
A 2009 Virginia Tech study determined that the crash risk increases 23 times for distracted drivers. The study included drivers doing such things as texting, talking on a cellphone, reaching for objects and eating.
Del. Scott Surovell, D–Mount Vernon, told The Washington Post he planned to introduce legislation that would increase the charge to reckless in crashes caused by drivers using mobile devices.
Neely wonders if people understand how serious the problem is.
“You’re just as distracted as if you were drunk” when you text and drive, Neely said.
Unfortunately, it took deadly crashes to wake people up to the problem of drunken driving, he explained. He figures it might take the same thing for people to realize how dangerous distracted driving is.
Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436