A bill introduced in the Virginia General Assembly would make texting while driving a more serious offense — and the penalties upon conviction would be up to one year in jail and up to a $2,500 fine.
It's not the first time such a measure has been proposed. But advocates say a recent court ruling that differentiates texting while driving from reckless driving should give them the support they need to get the bill through the General Assembly this year.
"There's usually about 10 texting bills a year, and they usually all get killed," said state Del. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon. "This year, something's going to change."
The House bill would essentially elevate texting while driving to a primary offense, which means police could stop someone solely for doing it. The new law, too, would make it a Class 1 misdemeanor.
Currently, texting while driving is a secondary offense — officers can only charge someone if they've stopped that person for another reason. And it's punishable by only a $20 fine for the first offense.
Surovell, the new bill's chief co-patron in the House of Delegates, is the attorney who represented the family of Kyle Rowley, a college student who was killed in 2011. Authorities say Jason Gage of Alexandria opened a text message within seconds of the crash that killed Rowley on Leesburg Pike. Gage was charged with reckless driving.
But state law says reckless driving must be proven by showing driving behavior. Fairfax County Judge Thomas E. Gallahue found that not enough evidence was presented to convict Gage of the charge, even though the judge told Gage, "I think you are driving recklessly," according to the Washington Post.
The judge laid blame at the state Legislature, which proponents hope will give the new bill the push it needs to make it through the General Assembly.
The bill was filed by Del. Ben Cline, an Amherst Republican and chairman of the Conservative Caucus. Surovell, a member of the Progressive Caucus, agreed that in a year that's likely to be marked by partisan fights over Medicaid expansion and perhaps changes to state gun laws, the texting-while-driving bill could enjoy bipartisan support.
The pair announced their intention to work together on the bill last month.
"It's time to do something about it," Surovell told Arlington Patch, noting the countless times he sees people staring down at their phones while he's driving to Richmond. "It's a growing problem."
State Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, said the Legislature should have time to deal with the matter in its whirlwind 46-day session.
"If you look over the years at bills that have been streamlined or fast-tracked… We do react very well to a crisis," Hope said.
Because the proposed more stringent penalties for texting while driving include potential jail time, the matter has budget implications, he said.