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February 27, 2019

‘Hands-free’ driving bill’s defeat stuns advocates

Proposed legislation would have made holding phone at wheel illegal.
People are still being killed in our roadways. We can’t just walk away from this; people are dying
— Janet Brooking of DRIVE SMART Virginia
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.

They said the legislation — HB 1811 and SB 1341, which died as the General Assembly adjourned Sunday — would have helped prevent accidents caused by distracted 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 County) and SB 1341, sponsored by Sen. Richard Stuart (R-King George County).

Del. Michael Webert (R-18th/Marshall) served as a co-patron of the House bill.

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, Ms. 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.

Ms. 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.

Ms. 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,” Ms. 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, she added. 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,” Ms. Brooking said. “We can’t just walk away from this; people are dying.”
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Mark House · March 1, 2019 at 8:25 am
Agree AngryBob - I was raised on a farm and was taught to drive as soon as I could reach the gas/brake. Every time we were in a vehicle we were shown how to be responsible because someone could be hurt or killed if not paying attention. In Germany people are required to take drivers training for 5 years before getting a permanent license.
AngryBob · February 28, 2019 at 12:12 pm
The law would be selectively enforced and wouldn't change anyone's behavior anyways. I'm glad it didn't happen.

Driving tests should be more difficult in order to weed out drivers who can't handle distractions. Don't dumb down the task. Raise the expectations.
Mark House · February 28, 2019 at 12:06 pm
“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.” You THINK?

Why not petition phone and/or car manufacturers to make it so that to start your car you must plug your phone into a USB outlet (older cars use cigarette lighter socket), you can start the car, but can not use the phone for texting? That sensor would turn off when the car is stopped completely for more then 5 minutes.
Just a thought, we have to come up with something.
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