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Senate tightens ban on phone use by drivers

RICHMOND—Put down those cellphones, teen drivers. All the way down.

A bill passed by the state Senate on Tuesday would make it a primary offense for those on provisional driver’s licenses—usually teenage beginning drivers—to use a cellphone while driving.

That’s currently a secondary offense, which means a police officer can’t pull them over for cellphone use alone. A primary offense means they can.

Sen. George Barker, D–Alexandria, the bill’s sponsor, said teen drivers just scoff at a secondary offense, because they know a policeman can’t pull them over for it.

“I am fully convinced if we pass this measure and make it a law … it will dramatically reduce the number of teenagers using cellphones” while driving, Barker said.

Other senators disagreed, raising questions about how police will enforce the law. For example, how would an officer know a driver is on a provisional license or using a cellphone?

Perhaps if a policeman sees a young driver’s lips moving, said Sen. Chap Petersen, that driver is just singing along with the radio.

“There’s no practical way for an officer to tell,” Peterson said. “I may be a voice in the wilderness on this. … As we continue to legislate in this code, I think we continue to get further away from the main purposes of why we enact laws, which is to have clear standards by which our police officers know what they can and cannot do.”

Bills like Barker’s, he said, “completely change the Fourth Amendment protections that we have in place.”

Sen. Bill Carrico, R–Grayson, a former state trooper, agreed.

“Making it a primary offense is going to really create havoc within departments, and I think we’ll be back here” fixing it,” Carrico said.

Nevertheless, senators passed Barker’s bill—barely. The vote was 19–19, giving new Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam his first chance to break a tie. He voted for the bill, so it passed.

It will now go to the House of Delegates.

Chelyen Davis: 804/343-2245