RICHMOND, Va. — Although Lawmakers in both the House of Delegates and Virginia State Senate passed hands-free driving bills, they could not come to final agreement on a “Hands Free Driving Law,” which would have outlawed driving while holding a phone before the 2019 General Assembly session ended.
As a result, any efforts to change the distracted driving statute in Virginia will wait until 2020 at the earliest.
Del. Chris Collins (R – Winchester) and Sen. Richard Stuart (R – Montross) sponsored the bills that would have expanded “the prohibition on using a handheld personal communications device while operating a motor vehicle to all uses unless the device is specifically designed to allow hands-free and voice operation and the device is being used in that manner.”
Drivers who broke the law could have been pulled over and issued a ticket ($125 on the first offense, $250 on the second).
The last-minute failure was the result of a conference report that added the phrases “in his hand” and “while physically manipulating the device to view, read, or enter data” to the bill. Lawmakers expressed concerns that changes altered the measure too much, to the point that it could no longer be considered a “hands free bill.”
“This does allow for some use of the phone, but it does not allow for the use of the phone to enter, read, or view data,” Collins said of the conference changes.
Del. Jay Jones (D-Norfok) said he originally supported the legislation, but the changes forced him to change his mind over concerns the bill was “way more subjective” and would allow for people to be pulled over for “driving while black.”
“It doesn’t say anything about dialing the phone to make a phone call; it doesn’t say anything using it, holding it up to your ear to talk, but only if you’re texting or trying to Facebook, GPS, or whatever else. I don’t think it’s a ‘hands free bill’ after all; it’s sort of what we had before,” said Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax) of the changes.
Collins said under the changes, holding the phone to view a GPS map would be illegal, but setting the phone in a chair or cup holder while viewing a map would have been permitted. Collins said the final version was “a hands free bill to prevent people from being able to use or enter data on their phone” while driving.
Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenadoah) said the bill did “significantly more” than current law.
The Virginia Senate agreed to conference report, but ultimately the House of Delegates voted it down in an interesting 45-50 vote tally. Multiple Republicans, including House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and Democrats cast votes on either side of issue.
Under current Virginia law, texting or writing an email while driving was illegal; however, police agencies said it was difficult to enforce.
“The current law requires the officer to be almost as distracted as the person who is texting in order to enforce that law because you have to drive down the road and watch the digits or numerics being entered,” Ashland Police Chief Doug Goodman said.
Under the proposed law, just holding a phone in your hand while driving would have been outlawed. However, drivers would have been allowed to talk on speaker while placing their phones elsewhere in the vehicle, lawmakers said.
Last year, a similar Senate bill failed in committee.
CBS 6 Political Analyst Dr. Bob Holsworth said constituents are putting increasing pressure on their representatives.
“For many years people thought that it was almost a right, in that it was wrong to take away their personal freedom — that would be the nanny state coming in,” Holsworth explained.
He added, “times are changing and evolving pretty quickly on this whole issue of driving while holding a cell phone.”
Lawmakers are hearing stories like those of Lakin Ashlyn.
Lakin Ashlyn’s mother held the last picture of her daughter: a Snapchat photo taken seconds before she flipped her car and died near West Point, Virginia in November 2017.
Ashlyn’s family has joined a coalition of lawmakers and law enforcement pushing to pass a hands-free driving bill during the 2019 Virginia General Assembly Session.
“I used to be on my phone all the time,” Lakin’s cousin Tabitha Clark said. “You’re being selfish if you are on your phone and doing whatever, but just driving.”
Virginia saw a 10.8 percent increase in traffic fatalities in 2017, according the Virginia DMV, and traffic deaths have increased every year since 2013.
Advocates said in 13 states the enacted hands free laws, the number of traffic fatalities saw an average decrease of 16 percent within two years.