MIDLOTHIAN, Va. -- A local driver safety group said political opponents to the "hands-free" driving bill arranged for its defeat by intentionally amending the language after it had already passed both chambers of the General Assembly. The "hands-free" measure ultimately failed in the final days of the 2019 session when lawmakers who previously supported it backed away over concerns changes from the amendments made the law too subjective.
"We weren’t completely surprised, but we were devastated," said Janet Brooking, Executive Director of Drive Smart Virginia.
Del. Chris Collins (R – Winchester) and Sen. Richard Stuart (R – Montross) sponsored 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 original "clean" version of both bills passed both the House and Senate by more than a 2/3rd margin.
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.”
Brooking said phrasing was added intentionally by a handful of the legislation's original opponents to ensure the measure would not become law. Brooking declined to name who her organization feels was behind the maneuver.
"The language, the three words that were used, were irrelevant. Those words gave the haters a vehicle to get it into conference," Brooking said. "The Black Caucus expressed concerns over the language that came out of conference. We opposed that language as well, as did law enforcement. Nobody was happy with that language."
Members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus initially voted in favor of the "hands-free" bill when it completely banned holding a phone. Following the changes, Del. Jay Jones (D-Norfolk) said the bill was “way more subjective” and would allow for people to be pulled over for “driving while black.”
"The intent was to put language out there that the writers knew a good number of the former supporters could not live with, therefore forcing it to be killed," Brookings said.
Opponents of the original bill argued that it went too by making it illegal to even answer a phone call while driving. Critics said the state has not outlawed other equally distracting activities, like eating food or drinking coffee, so the well-intentioned bill inched too close to violating personal freedoms.
Brooking said Drive Smart will advocate for "hands-free" law in 2020, and the organization said they hope all the attention the legislation garnered will at least encourage drivers to put down their smartphones regardless of the law.
"The very fact that people think they can use their phone when they drive and they can be safe in doing that shows they have a problem. Clearly, all the statistics and studies show that it’s very dangerous," Brooking said. "If someone thinks they can do that safely, shame on them."
Multiple drivers at a car wash in Midlothian said they hope Virginia soon moves toward a "hands-free" driving law.
"You stop at a light, you can see the young people texting on the phone. The light changes, and they still sitting there," said Steven Hargrove, who was an early adopter of a mount in his car for his phone.
"When you're driving, that's what you are supposed to be doing, driving. Not talking on the phone, not dialing, not texting," said Ricky Williams.
Currently, 16 states and Washington D.C. prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.