Distracted driving legislation stalls in Virginia

Deadly accidents involving distracted drivers rose in Virginia last year.

As lawmakers in the Commonwealth of Virginia discuss the best approach to making the region's roads safer, the goal of reducing distracted drivers has hit a bit of a speed bump.

This past January, the Senate Transportation Committee opted not to consider a bill aimed at stiffening penalties for motorists charged with multitasking behind the wheel, a behavior that's claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Americans and is part of the reason why deadly car accidents rose nationwide in 2015 – the first increase in 50 years. Virginia is one of 46 states that bans drivers from texting, making the action a primary offense in 2012. This means drivers can be pulled over and cited for this type of behavior specifically, which also includes other types of hand-held device manipulation, such as emailing or surfing the internet.

State Sen. Scott Surovell, who played a large role in toughening Virginia's texting and driving laws and is the main supporter of the stalled legislation, said police officers are having a hard time meting out justice because the activity is hard to detect and the law itself contains loopholes.

"The existing law they can't even enforce," Surovell explained, according to WWBT, a local NBC News affiliate. "You have a phone in your hand, no one can tell what that person is doing with that phone in their hand."

He added that what's also handcuffing Virginia's highway patrol is plausible deniability, as motorists can say to an officer who's pulled them over that they were playing an app. If that happens to be true, it absolves them of any wrongdoing.

"That's ridiculous," Surovell continued.

Law would make distraction ban more all-inclusive

House Bill 1834, if passed and eventually signed into law by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, would make the current distracted driving law much more all-encompassing by prohibiting drivers from manually selecting or pressing buttons, icons or keys on their handheld devices. This includes smartphones as well as portable media players. Using devices for navigation purposes, however, would still be permissible. 

Aside from the fact that distracted driving is a proven highway hazard – motorists are 23 times more likely to be involved in an accident when texting, according to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute – its danger hasn't led to reduced prevalence. To the contrary, government figures show 175 Virginia residents were killed in 2016 in accidents where multitasking was a contributing factor. Additionally, 14,700 were injured, many seriously.

Distracted driving as a growing problem is not exclusive to Virginia. In 2015 – the latest year for which data is available – 3,477 people nationwide died in car accidents where distractions were to blame, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That represents nearly 9% of all fatal automotive incidents over the 12-month period, more than any other single factor. In 2014, the total was 3,197.

Perhaps the most frightening element of the notable increase is the fact that motorists continue to engaging in this behavior, knowing full well that they're taking a major gamble. In a poll conducted last April, which is Distracted Driver Awareness Month, 61% of respondents admitted to driving while distracted, even though it was illegal for them to do so and they understood the dangers.

Distracted drivers plentiful in parking lots

It isn't just on the roads where drivers fail to focus; they do the same thing in parking lots. Approximately two-thirds of motorists say they don't hesitate to make phone calls when looking for an open space to park in, and 56% say they text, the National Safety Council found in a survey from late last year.

Dana Schrade, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, warned that distracted driving seems to be more the rule than the exception – an unsettling reality.

"What we are talking about is something that has become an accepted practice, and that's that we can multitask" Schrade told The Associated Press. "When you get behind the wheel, driving is a full-time job."

It's unclear when the bill will be reconsidered by the Virginia legislature, but when the time comes, other amendments to the current distracted driving law would make it unlawful to use smartphones and other hand-held devices in designated work zones.

With Distracted Driving Month just around the corner, we'll keep you posted on any developments that come down the pike.