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Texting-while-driving ban passes Senate committee

The Senate Courts of Justice committee this morning has approved a bill that would make texting while driving a primary offense, meaning that police could stop a driver they suspected was texting.

But opponents said it would essentially let police pull over drivers simply for looking down, since officers would have no way of knowing if a driver was texting or not.

The bill is a result of legislative efforts to clarify that texting while driving is considered reckless driving. The bill also provides enhanced penalties for a driver charged with reckless driving if they were found to be texting. The bill passed out of the committee on a 9-6 vote.

Safe-driving advocates back the bill; Martha Meade of AAA Mid-Atlantic said that in the time it takes to look down at a text “a driver is traveling the length of a football field blindfolded.”

But lawyers on the Courts committee had issues with it.

“This doesn’t make texting a primary offense, this makes picking up a handheld communications device in a vehicle a primary offense,” said Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford. “Because an officer cannot tell the difference.”

Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, a former police officer, said later that the bill complicates the issue “tremendously” rather than fixing it. He said police might have to get a search warrant for your phone, to prove you were texting when an accident happened.

He’s for fixing the problem, Reeves said, but thinks the only way to do that is to bar use of handheld devices while driving. As it is, a driver who is texting or sending an email would be in violation, but not one who was picking up the phone to make a call. But police wouldn’t know that before they stopped you on suspicion of a primary offense.

“We’ve given more authority to cops to stop you for virtually anything,” Reeves said.

A similar bill — with a $250 fine for texting while driving —  is due up in the House for debate and a vote in the next few days.

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