Driver Distraction

Last year, the Virginia DMV reported 126 fatalities and 13,733 injuries involving distracted driving in the commonwealth.

When operating a motor vehicle, a few seconds of distraction can cost you — or someone else — everything.

On Tuesday, 54-year-old Richmond attorney Claire Carr pleaded guilty to reckless driving in the deaths of three people she struck in June 2018 as they stood near a disabled car on Route 288 in Goochland County. She had faced three counts of involuntary manslaughter and up to 30 years in prison.

Carr received a one-year jail sentence (with work release) and her driver’s license will be suspended for six months. However, she’ll still be allowed to drive to and from work.

Evidence in the case indicated that Carr sent a text message a few seconds before the crash.

The deaths of 25-year-old Linli Xu, 41-year-old Justin Ransone and 45-year-old Amy Lee Abbott were 100% preventable. The cause of this tragic crash is sad and evident: Someone made the selfish decision to use her phone while driving.

Driver distraction is nothing new. Eating, grooming, adjusting the radio, anything drivers do that diverts their attention from the task of driving is distracted driving. There are three types of distraction: manual, visual and cognitive. The reason using a phone while driving is especially dangerous is that it involves all three types of distraction.

Fiddling with phones while driving has become a part of our culture. We are dealing with an epidemic comparable to drunk driving. According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, there were 126 fatalities and 13,733 injuries involving distracted driving last year in the state. Distractions such as talking or texting on cellphones, reading or reaching for an object are attributed to 80% of all crashes and 65% of all near-crashes, according to a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

These numbers should deeply concern every person who travels Virginia’s roadways because the problem isn’t going away. Virginia’s current texting-while-driving law is unenforceable. Texting is illegal under the existing law. However, watching cat videos, scrolling through Facebook posts, anything that doesn’t involve sending or reading texts or email is still legal.

A ban on manipulating a handheld phone while driving is crucial in the effort to curb this dangerous habit. Just a few decades ago, it wasn’t unusual to see someone drinking a beer while driving. Yet strong, enforceable laws and alcohol awareness programs changed the social norm about drinking and driving. We must do the same with distracted driving.

For years, DRIVE SMART Virginia has advocated for more effective distracted driving legislation. This year, we backed HB 1811, which was widely supported in the General Assembly, only to see the bill killed by the machinations of a small cabal of well-positioned opponents.

In 1984, the per se offense for drunk driving was created in Virginia, making it illegal for anyone to operate a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol content of 0.15% or higher. Less than two years later, the limit was lowered to 0.10%. Curbing distracted driving will require laws that are equally unambiguous. A ban on manipulating a handheld phone while driving removes the ambiguity of the current “texting” law. It would be enforceable, like the recently enacted law banning the use of a handheld phone while driving in a work zone.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration identified distracted driving as “a crisis that needs to be addressed now.”

This Tuesday, the makeup of the next Virginia General Assembly will be decided, and DRIVE SMART Virginia will again call on the General Assembly to pass a handheld phone ban.

We all have a responsibility to tackle this growing epidemic and prevent senseless deaths like those in the Goochland County case. Therefore, we also call on all Virginians to voice their support for a stronger distracted driving law.

Lawmakers listen to their constituents. Make your voice heard. If you aren’t sure who your Virginia lawmakers are, visit “Who’s My Legislator” at whosmy.virginiageneralassembly.gov and find out. Then send an email. Write a letter. Make a phone call.

Linli Xu was nearly six months pregnant when she was struck and killed.

No text message is worth the potential cost. Virginia should not lag behind other states in enacting an effective distracted driving law.

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Janet Brooking is the executive director of DRIVE SMART Virginia, a nonprofit focused on preventing traffic fatalities and injuries through education and outreach programs. Contact her at: janet.brooking@drivesmartva.org

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