RICHMOND, Va. — In a last-ditch effort to get phones out of drivers’ hands this year, advocates penned a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam today urging him to add an amendment to a bill that bans hand-held cell phone use near work zones.
Drive Smart Virginia, along with a coalition of other groups, is asking the Governor to make an amendment to SB1768, that would expand the ban to all roads statewide.
This comes after there was widespread support for legislation, HB1811 and SB1341, during the 2019 General Assembly session to pass an overall ban on using hand-held cell-phones behind the wheel in Virginia.
The language of the original bill prohibited drivers from “holding” a cell phone in the car, as opposed to just using it. The bill also had support from the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.
“The language of the word ‘hold’ was used for enforceability, so that was absolutely and completely enforceable [for law enforcement] and it was not subject to unfair policing — either you’re holding the phone or you’re not,” Janet Brooking, the executive director of Drive Smart Virginia, said.
A series of amendments were made on the bill over time, including one that would allow drivers to hold a phone up to their mouth and take a call. The bill failed to pass the House on the last day of the legislative session.
The reaction has been overwhelming, advocates say.
“I’ve gotten a ton of phone calls, a ton of emails,” Brooking said. “Everyone is concerned, disappointed, wants to know what they can do.”
Brooking penned the letter to Gov. Northam, urging him to take action. She says the current texting and email ban doesn’t do enough because technology has changed so much over the past decade since the law went into effect.
“The kind of device we had in 2009, texting and emailing may have been about the only thing you could do with that device,” she explained. “So with the development of smartphones and all of these apps and games and all of the different things you can do with the phone, that law quickly became antiquated.”
Law enforcement officials say it’s difficult to enforce the current ban on texting and emailing while driving as well.
“The only way you can prove a distracted driving violation right now is to seize the phone and get a warrant to be able to examine the phone to see what the person was doing at the time to stop them,” Dana Schrad, the executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police and the Virginia Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, said.
It also puts officers at risk, officials say. Ashland Police Chief Doug Goodman his officers have to watch a driver punching in a number of letters on their phone.
“It’s not just a one-second quick glance to see if someone just ran a stop sign or ran a stop light,” Chief Goodman said. “In order to [enforce it], we almost become as distracted.”
Backed by a number of groups, including the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, Virginia Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance and AAA’s of Virginia, Brooking thinks there’s enough support to make the change happen.
No matter the law, Chief Goodman says drivers need to keep their eyes where it matters.
“You’re driving a 2,000-pound bullet down the road. Focus on the road in front of you and no on the phone,” Chief Goodman said.
A spokesperson for the Governor’s office says they are reviewing the legislation at this time.
If Gov. Northam makes an amendment, then the full General Assembly will vote on the bill again in April when lawmakers reconvene in Richmond.