Friday, January 15, 2010

The Virginia General Assembly's 2010 Session; HB 22 and Texting While Driving

The 2010 session of the Virginia General Assembly opened on Wednesday, and the list of proposed bills is growing (rapidly!)by the day.

You can track each day's new bills on the Assembly's Legislative Information System, here. The LIS also includes an excellent status feature that enables you to keep track of a bill's progress as it wends its way through the Capitol's halls and committee rooms.

Meanwhile, in the executive branch, Governor McDonnell's inauguration takes place tomorrow on the steps of the Capitol.


Much of the Assembly's time and energy will be devoted to addressing the budget shortfall, however a number of "high visibility" issues are sure to generate controversy of their own. One of those issues has become a perennial focus of attention: the degree to which the state should regulate cell-phone and mobile device use by drivers.

Currently, Virginia (like a number of other states) prohibits texting-while-driving.

The applicable statute is Code of Virginia Section 46.2-1078.1 (you can read the entire section here), which includes this language:

A. It shall be unlawful for any person to operate a moving motor vehicle on the highways in the Commonwealth while using any handheld personal communications device to:

1. Manually enter multiple letters or text in the device as a means of communicating with another person; or

2. Read any email or text message transmitted to the device or stored within the device, provided that this prohibition shall not apply to any name or number stored in the device nor to any caller identification information.

The currently-effective prohibition loses some its sting, though, because Section 1078.1 also includes language that prevents enforcement unless a driver has been otherwise stopped -- ie, for a reason other than the texting ban:

C. No citation for a violation of this section shall be issued unless the officer issuing such citation has cause to stop or arrest the driver of such motor vehicle for the violation of some other provision of this Code or local ordinance relating to the operation, ownership, or maintenance of a motor vehicle or any criminal statute.

Delegate Algie D. Howell has introduced HB 22, which would amend Section 1078.1 in two ways that would make it significantly more restrictive.

First, HB 22 would delete subparagraphs 1 and 2 from paragraph A, which means that the ban would become a general ban on the use of hand-held mobile devices:

Second, HB 22 would delete paragraph C, and that would mean a police officer could pull over and cite a driver solely on the basis of violating the hand-held ban.

To date, we have not located any analysis of HB-22's chances of passage. It reflects a nationwide trend of stricter regulation of cell-phone use and texting while driving, and it will be interesting to see whether Virginia remains on the leading edge of that trend.