Bill to ban handheld cellphones while driving in Virginia falls short

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — UPDATE (April 5):

When Roanoke County Sheriff Eric Orange talks about distracted driving, he doesn't mince words.

"Distracted driving can lead to as many accidents as impaired driving," he said.

There are plenty of statistics to back Orange up. According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, people who text and drive are 23 times more likely to get into an accident.

Texting while driving is already illegal in Virginia, but lawmakers say it's difficult to enforce. And talking on a cell phone while driving is still very much legal in the commonwealth.

The legislation shot down during a Wednesday veto session would have made driving with a phone in hand for any reason illegal.

An attempt to pass a so-called hands-free driving bill failed in the General Assembly earlier this year. Then last week, Gov. Ralph Northam revived the proposal, attaching it as an amendment to another bill that bans hand-held phones in work zones.

The revised bill flew through the Senate, backed by lawmakers from both parties.

"The fact of the matter is, people have become so engrossed in their smartphones that they're absolutely oblivious to the world around them," said Sen. Richard Stuart (R) King George.

However, once the bill got to the House of Delegates, things came to a screeching halt. Speaker Kirk Cox ruled that the amendment wasn't relevant, effectively killing the revised bill.

The move was a disappointment for advocacy groups

"If someone were to tell me we don't need this law, I would just say you're ridiculous," said Janet Brooking.

Brooking is the executive director of Drive Smart Virginia, which argues for increased driver safety. She says even though the bill failed this year, the attention the issue has gathered has her hopeful for something could pass next year.

"Our goal is to keep the noise up, to keep it out in front of people," she said.

So for at least another year, holding a phone while driving remains legal in the Old Dominion. But people like Sheriff Orange are quick to point out, just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

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UPDATE (March 29):

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's effort to ban motorists from holding cellphones while driving appears doomed.

House Speaker Kirk Cox spokesman Parker Slaybaugh said the speaker believes an amendment Northam is proposing is out of order.

Such a ruling by the speaker would effectively kill Northam's proposed amendment. Northam wants to change legislation that would bar drivers from holding a cellphone while driving in a highway work zone to apply to all roads throughout the state.

Slaybaugh said Northam's proposal is not germane to the original legislation related only to work zones and noted that lawmakers already failed to pass a broad so-called "hands-free driving" bill earlier this year.

Northam's office declined to comment.

The legislature will return April 3 to take up Northam's vetoes and amendments.

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ORIGINAL STORY (March 26):

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is trying to revive an effort to ban drivers from holding cell phones while driving.

Northam announced Tuesday he's adding a proposed amendment to legislation that would bar drivers from holding a cellphone while driving in a highway work zone. The governor's amendment would broaden the ban to all roads in Virginia.

“The time has come for the Commonwealth to implement an effective and fair law to combat distracted driving,” said Governor Northam. “Too many families have lost loved ones as a result of a driver paying more attention to their phone than to their surroundings. This bill, as amended, will be a significant step forward in promoting traffic safety across the Commonwealth.”

Lawmakers in the House and Senate both passed a version of a "hands-free driving" bill earlier this year but could not agree on compromise language in a final product.

Senate Bill 1768, sponsored by Senator Monty Mason, did pass, however, to prohibit the use of any hand-held communication device in work zones.

The legislature will return April 3 to take up Northam's vetoes and amendments. State law already makes it illegal to text or email on a cellphone while driving – however, any other use of a phone is legal.

“A distracted driver puts everyone on the road at risk—that’s why it’s so important we come around to a fix for this important issue,” said Delegate Jeff Bourne. “The governor’s amendments address concerns about disparate enforcement against drivers of color and will help ensure this measure is being enforced appropriately across the state.”

Northam's amendment to the bill also requires the commonwealth to compile an annual report on all citations issued for distracted driving, including the relevant demographic data of the drivers cited, and directs DRIVE SMART Virginia and the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police to develop training materials for law enforcement and the public.

“It has come to the point where people are so totally engrossed in their phones that they are almost oblivious to the world around them,” said Senator Richard Stuart. “And that’s just a dangerous recipe on the highway. I am grateful that Governor Northam has put his shoulder behind this lifesaving reform.”