Jail time is no longer on the table as a maximum penalty as state lawmakers look to tighten Virginia's texting-while-driving law.
The Old Dominion is in line to increase the fines for such offenses, though, and to give law enforcement the power to stop drivers solely for texting.
House Bill 1907, which passed this week on a 92-4 vote, increases the fine upon conviction to $250 — up from $20 — for the first texting-while-driving offense and $500 for each subsequent conviction. The bill makes texting while driving an aggravating circumstance to reckless driving, and so anyone convicted such would face a mandatory minimum $500 penalty if they were texting while they were driving recklessly.
Further, texting while driving would constitute a primary offense, which means police can stop someone just on the suspicion that a driver's eyes and thumbs aren't where they should be.
Del. Mark Keam, who represents the 35th District including Oakton, abstained from voting.
"This is an important bill that will have a real impact on the health and safety of our children and citizens," state Del. Barbara Comstock, R-McLean, said in a statement. "…We need to continue to publicize this issue through public service announcements and education efforts as well as community efforts. We all know of dangerous and even deadly situations that have occurred from this increasing problem."
The bill was sponsored by Del. Richard Anderson, a Woodbridge Republican. Through the legislative process, it includes six other texting bills that had been proposed this year.
One, co-patroned by Del. Scott Surovell, a Mount Vernon Democrat, would have raised the offense of texting while driving to a Class 1 misdemeanor — putting it on par with reckless driving with penalties upon conviction of up to one year in jail and up to a $2,500 fine.
Surovell represented the family of a college student who was killed in 2011 by a man who authorities say was texting immediately before his vehicle struck the student on Leesburg Pike. The man was charged with reckless driving, but a Fairfax County judge threw that out, blaming the General Assembly for failing to distinguish texting from reckless driving.
The Senate already has passed a bill similar to Anderson's.