Lawmakers to Consider Stricter Texting While Driving Regulations

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Stiffer fines and prison time could be just around the corner if you're caught texting and driving.

A new bill filed in the Virginia House of Delegates, House Bill 1360, would make using a handheld device behind the wheel a primary offense. It also seeks to raise the penalty to a reckless driving charge.

Currently, drivers face only a $20 fine ($50 for more than one offense), and can only be charged with texting while driving if pulled over for another traffic violation. Reckless driving is considered a class one misdemeanor, which carries with it up to a year in prison and up to a $2,500 fine.

The bill is a bipartisan effort between several lawmakers. Republican Delegate Ben Cline, a former prosecutor in Rockingham County and Harrisonburg, is the bill's chief patron. Fairfax Delegate Scott Surovell, a Democrat and criminal defense attorney, is one of the bill's chief co-patrons.

"Ben and I are almost always on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to criminal justice issues," Surovell said.

But he and Cline have reached common ground on the issue of texting while driving.

"We've been talking about this issue for probably a year now," he said.

In 2012, Surovell represented the family of a teenager killed by a driver believed to have been texting behind the wheel. But despite presenting evidence that tied texting to the fatal collision, a Fairfax judge did not hand down a reckless driving conviction.

"He said, 'the only thing I can find you've proved beyond a reasonable doubt is texting. And because the General Assembly has said texting is a $20 fine, I'm stuck with that. I cannot find him guilty of reckless driving,'" Surovell said.

Surovell hopes the General Assembly will enact legislation to toughen the regulations on texting while driving. But he admits there are some issues that need to be considered before a bill is passed.

There are shared concerns from law enforcement and attorneys about the enforceability of a stricter law. There are also concerns the law could be used as a pretense for seizing someone's phone for a different reason. Surovell says the bill still faces revisions before it is introduced.

Similar bills have passed the Senate in the past, but none have ever made it through the House of Delegates. This year, though, Surovell feels optimistic. He is one of 33 co-patrons from both parties who are sponsoring the legislation.

"I think that this year it has an excellent chance of actually passing," he said.

The bill should go before a House of Delegates subcommittee next week. Similar legislation is also being considered in the Senate.