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Distracted Driving Laws Remain Weak in Virginia (VA)

A slate of bills to strength restrictions on, and penalties for, using a cell phone to talk or text while driving have failed to win passage in the 2011 session of the Virginia Legislature. This continues a trend reaching back to at least 2008, when lawmakers in Virginia (VA) opted to make distracted driving a secondary traffic violation instead of a primary one.

As a secondary violation, state and local police officers and sheriff's deputies can only ticket drivers for using a phone or other handheld electronic device while behind the wheel if they pull people over for speeding, making an unsafe lane change or illegal turn, or committing another offense.

Virginia -- along with North Carolina (NC), Washington, DC, and 28 other states -- does prohibit texting and driving. Many states also make it a ticketable offense for teens to drive and use a cell phone at the same time. But the existing laws rarely go far enough in discouraging people from putting their own and other people's lives and health at risk because of distracted driving.

Federal regulators and law enforcement officials agree that only a complete ban on cell phone use while driving can lower the toll taken by distracted drivers, who account for 80 percent of all car and truck accidents that cause injuries and deaths. One of the bills just tabled by the Virginia House of Delegates, SB 1351 introduced by Sen. Tommy Norment of Williamsburg, would have made any use of a handheld electronic communication device a primary offense. It passed the Senate overwhelmingly but never came to a full vote in the lower house. The same fate befell bills to make texting and driving a primary offense for teens 18 and younger (SB 1047) and to make texting by all drivers (SB 1042) a primary offense.

While cell phones are just one distraction for drivers, they are among the worst. Handheld devices not only take drivers' eyes and attention off the road, they take people's hands off the wheel. When the Virginia Legislature reconvenes in 2012, they need to revive and pass tougher rules against cell phone use in cars and trucks.

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