Editor's Note: Written by Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax).
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.
Petersen first wrote this post for his blog, OxRoadSouth.com