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Text at Your Own Risk - February 2014

February 18, 2014

by Andrew D. Kubovcik

One of the more controversial changes to Virginia law in 2013 was the statute dealing with “texting while driving”. Virginia Code section 46.2-1078.1 made it unlawful to “manually enter multiple letters or text in the device as a means of communicating with another person” (emphasis added) or to read an email or text message sent “to the device or stored in the device.” These prohibitions are subject to numerous exceptions such as a person who is legally parked or stopped, using a GPS on the device, or reporting an emergency. The change passed last year made texting while driving a “primary” offense, meaning the police can stop a person believed to be violating this specific law. The penalty for violating this law is a fine of $150 for a first offense, while a second or subsequent offense is punishable by a $250 fine.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has found that distracted driving is six times more dangerous than drunk driving. There are multiple ways to be distracted while driving – answering a call, picking up your phone, reading a text message or even talking to a passenger. But Virginia Code Section 46.2-1078 directly addresses just a small part of distracted driving. Nearly 4,000 people died as a result of distracted driving, while over 400,000 people were injured in distracted driving accidents.

Enforcement of this law remains difficult. There is really no way to determine if a person looking at a phone while the vehicle is in motion is texting, reading an email or using a GPS to find some location. The Washington Post reported in April of 2013 that the State of Maryland has made it easier to enforce its law by allowing police to pull over any driver with a cellphone in hand. But even if an officer asks a driver hand over his phone, the driver is under no obligation to turn the phone over to the police. The police can obtain a warrant to view the phone if circumstances call for one.The Virginian-Pilot reported that the State Police have given 328 citations from July 1 through September 28 of 2013.

While it might not seem like much to pay a fine, it becomes a big deal when there is an accident with property damage and injuries. In that case, not only is the driver getting a ticket, he is also facing the prospect of being sued as a result of not paying attention to the road. We can all do ourselves a favor by pulling over to make a call or waiting until you are stopped at the stoplight to adjust the radio.