Virginia needs to get tough 
on behind-the-wheel texting

Virginia needs to get tough 
on behind-the-wheel texting

To the editor:

When it comes to rankings, Alexandria has accumulated some impressive laurels in recent years: one of the nation’s 100 Best Communities for Young People, Money magazine’s Best Places to Live, one of the top 10 Heart Friendly Cities, and even the top 10 Cities for Single Women, among other lofty distinctions.

However, no place is perfect, and Forbes magazine took a constructive swipe at our fair city last month in its annual list of cities with the worst drivers. The list, compiled by Allstate using the auto insurance claim frequency of America’s 200 largest cities, ranked Alexandria No. 7, with our neighbor, Arlington, following close behind at No. 12 nationally. (The District, as if I had to mention it, topped the list.)

My hope is that this embarrassing distinction will finally prompt the Virginia General Assembly to apply some teeth to its ban on cell phone use while driving. The law is a secondary law, meaning drivers cannot be stopped and punished for this infraction alone; they must be stopped for committing another infraction, like running a red light. This makes the law difficult to enforce. Additionally, this infraction is only considered a minor traffic violation with a fine of $20 for a first offense.

In July 2011, New York’s lawmakers signed into law a ban on texting while driving that made the offense a primary infraction, meaning law enforcement officials can stop drivers for that offense. They also increased the penalty from two to three traffic points, which go toward the suspension of a license.

In the first year since the law was signed, four times as many tickets have been issued than the previous year. It is too soon to tell whether this will have any significant deterrent effect on motorists in New York, but it is certainly a move in the right direction.

Research continues to prove that distracted drivers can be nearly as dangerous as drunk drivers. A 2008 Carnegie Mellon study concluded that driving while operating a mobile device reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37 percent. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,092 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver in 2010.

Yet Virginia lawmakers have not found the political will to help remedy this deceptively dangerous social hazard. After yet another distracted driving bill was shot down in the General Assembly last year, a spokeswoman for Gov. Bob McDonnell issued a feeble statement: “Wireless carriers continue to educate their customers and work with law enforcement officials to ensure the public is aware of the potential dangers of improper use of wireless devices while driving.”

Yes, governor, education is part of the answer to reducing dangerous activity. The other part is swift and strict punishment to deter the self-absorbed among us from needlessly harming the innocent. We just need lawmakers to do their part to help move Alexandria and Arlington toward the opposite end of that list.
– Joe Myers