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Texting while driving is being studied for more serious penalty in Va.

- The Washington Times - Monday, December 3, 2012

Virginia's State Crime Commission is considering a proposal that would strengthen the state's texting-while-driving laws to be in line with those across the country, a move applauded by lawmakers who have backed similar legislation but seen by some as a gesture that is too little too late.

More than a year after his teenage son Kyle was killed by a car driven by a man reading a message on his phone, Carl Rowley said he is glad the issue is getting traction, but "it's not doing anything for Kyle."

In May 2011, the 19-year-old was pushing his stalled car off the road on Route 7 in Fairfax when Jason Gage plowed into the back of Rowley's car. A judge dismissed Mr. Gage's reckless driving charges because texting while driving is considered a secondary offense in Virginia, with a fine as low as $20.

Though he recognized that the judge's decision was made to "drive the point home" about the discrepancies among reckless driving charges in Virginia, Mr. Rowley said, "the guy never looked. He ran right into him.

"This is something for people down the road," Mr. Rowley said of the proposal to strengthen the law. "This doesn't happen often, but it happens."

Officials said these kinds of crashes happen often enough to warrant a change in how states and drivers handle behavior behind the wheel.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration records show that in 2010 about 9 percent of the nearly 33,000 highway fatalities were "distraction affected." The administration's website about distracted driving, Distraction.gov, states that more than 400,000 injuries in car crashes were the result of distracted driving. According to the agency, drivers are 23 times more likely to crash while they text.

Virginia Delegate Scott Surovell, a Fairfax Democrat who also represented the Rowleys in civil court, explained that in the past, texting was "not as much on people's radar screen. It was more abstract."

"What happened to Kyle Rowley was a real wake-up call," he added, "not only what happened legally, but also his death was extremely tragic and unnecessary."

In fact, according to the crime commission's proposal, Kyle Rowley's death — though his name was omitted — was one of the reasons it is being considered.

Delegate Robert B. Bell, the Albemarle Republican who is the crime commission chairman, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the judge's ruling in the Rowley case was puzzling.

"If that's something that's happening in the court, we need to make sure texting is covered under reckless driving," he said.

Among the states that neighbor Virginia, Maryland has one of the harshest penalties for texting while driving. In the Free State, texting behind the wheel of a moving vehicle is considered a primary offense, meaning police officers can pull over a driver if they are doing it. It also carries a $500 fine.

The District, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee also consider texting while driving a primary offense. Those states slap fines on offenders ranging between $50 and $300.

A number of Virginia legislators in the past have attempted to label texting while driving a primary offense.

Delegate Kaye Kory, a Fairfax Democrat, has proposed this type of legislation for the past several sessions. In January she is hoping to designate an annual "End Texting While Driving" day.

"I think the more attention paid to this, the better," Ms. Kory said. "Now that D.C. and Maryland have got much more stringent laws about this than we have, it makes it even more important for us to move quickly."

Sen. George Barker, also a Fairfax Democrat, said he has attempted to make texting while driving a primary offense.

"Right now, a cop can see you texting while driving and unless you're breaking some other law, they can't pull you over," he said. "From my perspective that's problematic. From my perspective it's taken too long to get here."

Mr. Barker said of all the opinions he hears from constituents, texting while driving is the most popular discussion topic.

"Everybody has their own personal experience," he said. "They see it as exceedingly dangerous."

Mr. Surovell said that some people are concerned that people could be accused of texting while driving based solely on the words of police officers. It also opens up the risk of cellphone seizures, he said.

"It's not a clean issue. It gets a lot more complicated than a lot of people realize," he said.

But Mr. Surovell expects something to happen in terms of policy. The question, he said, is what.

"Is texting reckless driving or something less serious?" he asked.

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