Va. crime panel pushes for tougher penalties for texting drivers

Posted at 7:39 PM, Dec 05, 2012
and last updated 2012-12-06 09:50:40-05

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) -- The Virginia State Crime Commission is endorsing tougher penalties for texting while driving.

The endorsement comes on the heels of proposed legislation by two Virginia lawmakers to make texting while driving a primary offense and as punishable as reckless driving. [RELATED: W82TEXT raises awareness of texting while driving dangers]

Pastor Tracy Whitlock, who lost his niece in a texting-related accident in January, says he’s relieved that Virginia lawmakers are pushing to strengthen Virginia’s distracted driving laws.

“It still hurts,” Whitlock says.

27-year-old Toure Thaniel and her 22-year-old best friend, who was a passenger, died in a car accident on the Chippenham Parkway. Police say Thaniel was texting at the time of the accident.

In 2006, Whitlock says he was critically injured in another car accident caused by a texting driver, but he says his niece’s death motivated him to become an outspoken advocate for tougher laws.
“I went out and got over 15-thousand signatures,” Whitlock says.  “That support should all come together so we can show just how serious we are about this.”

On Wednesday, Delegate Benjamin Cline, a Republican, and Del. Scott Surovell, a Democrat, introduced legislation before the state crime commission’s meeting.

Cline’s bill would make texting while driving a reckless driving offense.

Currently under Virginia law, texting while driving is punishable by a $20 fine for the first offense. If upgraded to reckless driving, it would carry a $2,500 fine and up to a year in jail.

Surovell’s bill would make texting while driving a primary offense.

Currently the law can only be enforced if an officer pulls a driver over for another offense.

During Wednesday’s state crime commission meeting, Delegate Manoli Loupassi suggested banning hand-held devices all together.  He says enforcing a texting law would be difficult for law enforcement unless the driver admits to texting.

“You’d have to, in each case, file a search warrant to get the person’s cell phone records,” Loupassi argues. 

Whitlock says he would like lawmakers to take the toughest stance.  He says he plans to march outside the General Assembly building on Friday.

“I really want to make a difference in saving lives,” Whitlock says. “How many lives are we going to lose?”

CBS 6 and Emroch and Kilduff are working to raise awareness about the dangers of texting and driving. W82TEXT is a grassroots effort aimed at spreading the word about the growing danger, especially to younger drivers. Click here to take the W82TEXT Pledge.