The Virginia State Crime Commission will consider proposed legislation to toughen Virginia's laws on texting while driving.
The commission asked its staff for a report on the topic after a judge in Fairfax County did not convict a driver - believed to have been texting when involved in a fatal accident - of reckless driving because the state had a law making texting a lesser crime.
"Many of us were puzzled by his legal reasoning but, in any case, if that's something that's happening in the court, we need to make sure texting is covered under reckless driving," said state Del. Robert B. Bell, R-Albemarle, the commission chairman.
Reckless driving is punishable by up to a year in jail.
Options suggested by the crime commission staff included amending the law to make it clear that texting while driving is not precluded from being considered reckless driving, creating an enhanced penalty for traffic violations committed while texting, or classifying texting while driving as reckless driving.
The commission will consider endorsing a proposal at its Dec. 5 meeting. Endorsement by the commission does not ensure passage by the General Assembly but carries great weight with legislators.
This month, Thomas E. Cleator, senior staff attorney for the commission, reported that Virginia's reckless driving law includes 13 specific violations, such as driving too fast for conditions or failure to stop for a school bus.
There also are two general violations, one that includes driving in a manner that endangers life, limb or property, he said.
The Virginia Supreme Court has defined "reckless" as "a disregard by the driver of a motor vehicle for the consequences of his act and an indifference to the safety of life, limb and property."
The Virginia Court of Appeals has ruled that a driver with local knowledge of a short merger lane who speeds up, making it difficult for another driver to merge in front of him, is guilty of reckless driving. But courts do not infer reckless driving by intoxication alone or the mere occurrence of an accident.
Cleator said Virginia law makes texting a secondary offense - an offense for which you can be charged if police pull you over for a more serious "primary" offense such as speeding or running a stop sign.
The Virginia law makes it illegal to manually enter text messages to communicate with another person but not the one-click call-up of a stored number. Exceptions are the use of a GPS device, emergency vehicles reporting an emergency, or in a lawfully parked or stopped vehicle. There is a $20 fine for a first offense and a $50 fine for subsequent offenses.
In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2010, there were 285 charges and 229 convictions in Virginia, while in the year that ended this June 30, there were 511 charges and 414 convictions, Cleator reported.
He said all the states surrounding Virginia have made texting while driving a primary offense, with fines ranging from $25 to $500.
In 2012, the Virginia Department of Transportation, using accident report forms from law enforcement, began collecting data for fatalities, injuries and crashes that resulted from texting. .
The study found there were 63 such accidents, most of them involving drivers ages 21 to 30, while a 2009 Pew study found that 26 percent of teens reported texting while driving.
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