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No more texting while driving

June 25, 2009 12:35 am


Beginning Wednesday, drivers will have one less distraction.

Virginia has banned text messaging while operating a motor vehicle. The ban starts July 1, the day most new state laws go into effect.

Virginia is one of 14 states to ban text messaging while driving, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. A handful of other states have banned text messaging for drivers under 18 and school bus drivers.

Using a hand-held cell phone to make calls while driving is still allowed for drivers over age 18, but typing text or reading text messages or e-mails will be forbidden while operating a moving vehicle.

Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller acknowledged it is hard to resist the pull of a newly received e-mail on a mobile device.

"They call it 'crackberries' for a reason," Geller said, using the nickname for Blackberries, phones that also deliver e-mail.

For many owners, such phones are addictive forms of technology that allow them to constantly be in touch with family, friends and co-workers--even when they should be paying attention to traffic.

Geller said the ban will raise awareness that glancing away from the road to stare at a miniscule screen--even for a second or two--is a dangerous gamble.

"You'll just have to resist the urge when you hear your Blackberry rattle across the seat next to you," she said.

Del. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, sponsored the bill in the Virginia General Assembly that led to the texting ban, which was passed overwhelmingly in the House of Delegates and the Senate, and signed by Gov. Tim Kaine.

With any law, there are exceptions.

Drivers may send a text message to report an emergency. Drivers operating emergency vehicles are exempt from the ban. Global Positioning Systems are not considered wireless devices under the ban, so drivers can still keep a hand on the wheel and punch in an address.

Also, drivers are allowed to send or read a text message when legally parked or stopped.

In the Fredericksburg area, drivers might consider themselves "stopped" or "parked" in gridlock on the Falmouth Bridge or Interstate 95--but it still may not be permissible to send or read texts then.

A call to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles for clarification was referred to Virginia State Police. Geller said state police does not interpret law and can only enforce it.

A driver should not be parked in a travel lane, Geller said. Also, drivers should not text in stop-and-go traffic because that is where most fender-benders occur from driver inattention, she said.

If you are operating a moving vehicle, you should not be sending or reading texts, Geller said.

"You're not paying attention to what's going on," Geller said. "Your concentration is on a little screen in front of you."

The fine for a first violation is $20, and $50 for a second violation. Driving while texting will be considered a secondary offense, meaning law enforcement officers must have another reason to stop or arrest a driver beyond texting.

Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Mechanicsville, was the only Fredericksburg-area state legislator to vote against the ban. McDougle represents parts of Caroline and Spotsylvania counties.

McDougle, an attorney, said he believes drivers should not be texting. But he was concerned that drivers who text and subsequently cause a crash may now be charged with a less severe offense than reckless driving, which includes all manner of distracted driving behaviors.

"Reckless driving is anything which causes you to not pay attention--adjusting the radio, putting on makeup, eating a Big Mac, texting. So texting is already included under reckless driving because it is a distraction to the driver," McDougle said.

Driver distraction is increasingly viewed as a public health problem. Last year, Virginia's DMV recorded 28,395 crashes on state roads that involved driver distraction. DMV does not know how many of those crashes involved text messaging or cell phones. But 114 people died as a result of those crashes, and another 14,480 people were injured.

When Virginia wanted to reduce highway crashes after a record-breaking number of fatalities in 2007, it asked drivers to limit distractions along with the other pillars of safety: reducing speed, wearing a seatbelt, and driving free from the effects of drugs and alcohol.

Driving "is taxing enough," Geller said. "Why try to complicate it even more while trying to drive and text?"

Kelly Hannon: 540/374-5436


Starting July 1, it will be illegal in Virginia to operate a moving motor vehicle while you send text messages from a wireless device or read text messages and e-mails on a wireless device.

Drivers can only send or read text messages on a wireless device when the vehicle is parked or stopped, or when they are texting to report an emergency.

The fine for a first violation is $20, and $50 for a second violation. Driving and texting will be considered a secondary offense, meaning law enforcement officers must have another reason to stop or arrest a driver.

Driving and text messaging is banned on the East Coast in Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Maryland and New Jersey. It is a primary offense in all of these places, meaning you can be stopped solely for texting. North Carolina bans texting while driving starting Dec. 1.

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