LEGISLATION to ban handheld use of electronic devices—i.e. cellphones—while driving has been introduced and killed or left to die in the Virginia General Assembly for years. Last year, lawmakers finally approved legislation to outlaw the reading or keying in of an email or text.
This year, they are looking to go a big step further: Senate Bill 160, introduced by Sen. Scott Surovell, a Democrat whose 36th District includes part of Stafford County, has been passed by the Senate and identical legislation was approved in the House of Delegates.
The intention of these bills is well-understood. Cellphone use can in many ways be a distraction while driving, though studies and statistics are divided on the uses and functions that are most dangerous. Without a doubt, manipulating the phone, as in texting or keying in an internet search or a phone number, requires a driver’s attention and compromises his or her concentration on the road.
We’d wager that most drivers have seen other vehicles swerving along, with the other driver looking up at the road and down at a phone in repeated, head-bobbing fashion. Then there’s the driver who types a text while holding the phone at the top of the steering wheel, thinking it is somehow a better way. This is unacceptable, menacing highway behavior.
The legislation Surovell and other lawmakers introduced is actually a rewriting and toughening of the existing law against texting or other cellphone use while driving. The new bills state that: “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.”
We question, however, whether simply holding a cellphone to one’s ear is any more of a distraction than holding a sandwich and/or carrying on a conversation with a passenger. And there are differing opinions, and study results, on whether a hands-free interaction, such as voice texting, is significantly less risky than manual texting, for example.
Former AAA president and CEO Robert L. Darbelnet once referred to “the common public misperception that hands-free means risk-free.”
Enforcement of laws barring cellphone use while driving is always problematic and is partly why lawmakers have been reluctant to pass them. If the new legislation becomes law, we would hope enforcement focuses on the many drivers who foolishly choose to manipulate their phones while driving, rather than whose who are merely holding a phone to their ear, even though both would technically be violations.
Just to be clear, cellphone use while driving, in any way at any time, is unacceptable for youthful drivers up to age 18.
Unfortunately, cellphone-use-while-driving enforcement often occurs after the fact, when a phone-distracted driver has caused an accident and records indicate a text was sent or received immediately before impact.
The key is to get people to choose safer behavior through education as well as law enforcement. People still drink and drive, but now they drink and drive less. People still fail to buckle their seat belts, but today they buckle up more than they used to.
Whether it’s through law enforcement, a wrecked car in front of the high school or a series of public service announcements, driving home the dangers of cellphone use behind the wheel requires a cultural shift, something people simply do less because they have seen, understand and grieved over the consequences.