Texting law, fines in state may get stiffer

Posted: February 26, 2013

The Winchester Star

The General Assembly has passed a bill that would make texting while driving a primary offense. It’s pending the governor’s signature before becoming law. Area police say they back the ban. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)

WINCHESTER — A bill that would make texting while driving a primary offense and increase the fines for doing so passed the state General Assembly Feb. 19 and is awaiting the signature of Gov. Bob McDonnell.

If passed, it would go into effect July 1.

Law enforcement officials in Winchester and Frederick County expressed support for the law, saying that the distraction caused by texting can lead to accidents.

Under the bill, police would be able to stop a driver suspected of texting, and an offense would bring a fine of $250 for a first violation. Subsequent violations would cost $500.

Currently, texting at the wheel is a secondary offense, which means drivers can only be ticketed if they’re pulled over for another offense. First-time violations carry a $20 fine, with subsequent infractions drawing a $50 tab.

Deputy Warren Gosnell, traffic supervisor for the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, supports the stricter punishment.

“I don’t know what else will deter people,” he said.

Gosnell added that texting is often a contributing factor in Frederick County car accidents, yet few tickets are issued for the offense.

“People are really only given a ticket when they’re unfortunate enough to get in an accident,” he said.

That could change if McDonnell signs the legislation.

Both Gosnell and Winchester Police Capt. Doug Watson — who said the city department supports the bill — noted that tickets issued for texting will likely rise if the law takes effect.

“We will be proactive in enforcing it,” Watson said.

According to AAA, distractions — including texting, phone calls and eating — contribute to more than 5,000 traffic fatalities each year in the U.S.

Distraction caused by a mobile device could have contributed to an Oct. 5 accident on Interstate 81 in Frederick County that killed two residents of Staunton.

The driver of a tractor-trailer that slammed into the back of a vehicle stopped in traffic in a construction zone has been charged with reckless driving (operating a vehicle with improper brakes).

A search warrant for the tractor-trailer driver’s cellphone was filed Oct. 12 investigating whether or not he was text messaging at the time of the wreck. The crash remains under investigation.

McDonnell has expressed reservations about the bill. He said in a November radio interview on Washington’s WTOP-FM that he believes current laws cover texting while driving.

“In Virginia we do have general laws on reckless driving, on improper driving, aggressive driving and other laws like that that cover a multitude of conduct,” he said.

The states that border Virginia and Washington, D.C., already have laws that make texting while driving a primary offense.

Thirty-six other states ban texting while driving with all but four classifying it as a primary offense.

— Contact Conor Gallagher at cgallagher@winchesterstar.com