Drivers in Virginia soon could find themselves being pulled over for sending text messages.
It already is illegal to text while driving in Virginia, but Del. Lionell Spruill (D-Chesapeake) wants to make it a primary offense -- doing so would allow police to pull someone over when they see them texting while driving. Currently, people only can be ticketed for texting if they are pulled over for another offense. The fine for texting while driving is $20, and $50 for each subsequent offense.
Spruill said he pre-filed the bill this week because drivers who are texting are causing a lot of accidents, but police have no power to pull someone over if they see drivers texting.
"Accidents happen, and they find out they were texting," Spruill said.
The issue of sending messages while driving has come to light recently as the dangers have become clearer. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute says sending text messages is the riskiest thing someone can do on a cell phone while driving.
Thirty states have banned sending text messages while behind the wheel. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said recently he wants to make the ban nationwide. In southern California, one woman is facing a felony manslaughter charge after allegedly striking and killing a pedestrian while sending text messages.
Although studies have shown that while awareness of the dangers has increased, more people are texting while driving. According to a survey of the Vlingo Corp., 30.1 percent of cell phone users in Virginia admitted to texting while driving in 2010.
"Our goal would be for nobody to text while they drive," said Martha Meade, spokeswoman for AAA Virginia.
But she said getting the General Assembly to pass laws banning texting has been "quite an uphill battle."
The General Assembly banned texting in 2009, after sending a bill for the ban to committee for further study in the previous session. Meade said lawmakers can be hesitant to pass bills like this because they do not want to regulate people's behavior.
Concern about how far the ban goes also is an issue. The law only applies to "handheld personal communications devices" but some are worried it could extend to GPS units or Bluetooth devices.
However, Spruill said the law is not complete without making it a primary offense. He said he wants to have police officers testify before the General Assembly on how dangerous text messaging is and why it should be a primary offense.
But even enforcing it as a primary offense still could be difficult, Meade said. Police officers often can't see if drivers are texting or dialing their phones.
Still, she said the law needs to be strong to be effective.
"If police take the law seriously, then people will start to take the law seriously," Meade said.