Petersen: 'Anti-Texting Bill Identifies Problem, Does Not Solve It'

Virginia Sen. Chap Petersen speaks out against police power in bill headed to governor's desk.

One of the biggest public safety concerns over the past few years has been “texting while driving.”  There have been countless accidents, including fatal ones, caused by foolish people who send texts while operating a moving motor vehicle.  It’s hard to think of a more dangerous activity.

As with all public safety problems, the General Assembly of Virginia has the answer.  Or at least an answer.

In 2010, we outlawed “driving while texting” and made it a civil infraction.  As noted before in this column, that was a mistake.  By establishing a lesser penalty for “DWT,” we essentially removed that activity from the list of “reckless”driving offenses.  So drivers who caused a fatal accident while texting were guilty — of a civil penalty not exceeding $100.  Not exactly the deterrent we wanted.

This year, the GA went back to work with the avowed intent to “get tough” on DWT, just as they did on DUI.   But here’s the problem:  when you’re drunk, you’re drunk for several hours. There are few (if any) ways to conceal that condition once you’re pulled over.

By contrast, when you’re texting, that act can be halted within a split-second.  Therefore, by the time an office pulls you over, it’s near impossible to “prove” or even raise a reasonable suspicion of whether you texted.  (Honestly, the only evidence would be the fact that a driver is looking down and not at the roadway).  Yes, an office can voluntarily ask the driver to turn over his phone for examination .  Otherwise, he would need a search warrant to take it away — and then “check” to see when it was last used.

Despite this clear problem, the Assembly passed a bill which increases the penalties and also makes DWT a “primary offense,” which means that officers can now pull over “suspects” even if they are not committing another offense, e.g. speeding, swerving, etc.

That is a massive expansion of the right to stop vehicles (and a commensurate diminution of our Fourth Amendment right against search and seizure).  It will also give unlimited discretion for police officer to pull over motorists who even glance at their phones while operating a vehicle.  A better option would be to simply charge motorists with reckless driving, anytime their distracted driving or DWT causes an accident.

I voted against that police power expansion, which I usually always do, but was on the losing side of a 28-12 vote.  The matter now goes to the Governor.

Vienna's Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) first wrote this post for his blog, OxRoadSouth.com



Virginia Texting-While-Driving Bill Heads to Governor's Desk

Texting While Driving Bill Awaits Senate Vote

Bill Could Make Texting While Driving a More Serious Offense in Virginia

John Smith February 21, 2013 at 12:48 PM
While I truly appreciate Senator Petersen's concerns about the possibility that this new legislation will erode 4th Amendment rights, I still see the legislation as a worthwhile step in the right direction. Just look around around you at the drivers of cars stopped beside you at any red light; it's my experience that many of them are sitting in their vehicles texting. Many continue to do so after the traffic light turns green, oblivious of their surroundings. I'd welcome police intervention in such cases, and others in which texting is being done blatantly in heavy traffic. I've witnessed it on the beltway during heavy rush hour traffic. If I can see it, so can law enforcement officers. I have faith in our law enforcement officers to use some wisdom and discretion in their enforcement of this legislation, as they typically do in other law enforcement matters. Time will tell.
Laura B. February 21, 2013 at 02:53 PM
I'd like to know more about the results in Maryland since use of hand-held phones and texting were banned. Every time I see a driver error, such as a wide turn, dangerous lane change, weaving in the lane, or failure to proceed after a light turns green, THAT DRIVER IS ON THE PHONE. Every time. Every single time. Start looking and you'll see it too.
Tom Westcot June 13, 2013 at 12:42 PM
The Senator hit the nail on the head. I have always wondered why the police do not charge cell phone users who cause accidents with reckless driving. We do not need more laws if we are not even enforcing the laws on the books. If the police stopped everyone who uses a cell phone while driving, we would have total gridlock (OK, we already do but that is not the point). Charging bad drivers not bad behavior is the answer.


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