Va. considers tougher penalties for those who text while driving

Max Smith,

WASHINGTON – Virginia is considering tougher penalties for some people who text and drive.

The draft of new legislation that goes before the Virginia State Crime Commission on Wednesday makes it clear that texting while driving can be considered reckless driving in addition to a traffic offense. The commission makes recommendations to the General Assembly.

It comes in the wake of a case in Fairfax County, where a judge ruled this year that the current texting-while-driving law precluded a reckless driving conviction against a man prosecutors said opened a text very close to the time he struck and killed a teenager in Dranesville in May 2011. The current law comes with penalties of $20 for a first offense and $50 for a second

Virginia has the weakest texting-while-driving penalties in the region. It classifies the action as a secondary offense, which means police officers can only give a ticket for the violation if they pull a driver over for another reason.

The penalty for reckless driving in Virginia is up to one year in jail and a $2500 fine.

A bill that would have kept the lower penalties but made texting behind the wheel a primary offense passed the Senate last session, but stalled in the House of Delegates.

There are now signs from several state lawmakers in both parties that they support some kind of change to the law. But on WTOP’s Ask the Governor this week, Bob McDonnell seemed to indicate he thinks the current reckless driving statute should cover the dangerous situations lawmakers are trying to address.

“If you endanger someone else and it causes you to drive improperly, then you can be charged with other offenses – both traffic and criminal offenses,” McDonnell says. “Reckless driving is a criminal offense. So we’ve got the blanket laws already that I believe are sufficient.”

McDonnell also said the goal is to punish conduct.

“That’s the basis of the law,” he says. “If you do something so it causes you to drive erratically in such a way that you endanger someone else, then that’s when the offense occurs and that’s when you can be cited in Virginia.”

Texting while driving is a primary offense in both Maryland and D.C., meaning police officers can pull drivers over just for that violation. The fine for a first offense in Maryland is $70, while the fine for a violation in the District is $100.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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