- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2007

RICHMOND — Legislation to prohibit motorists under age 18 from using cell phones while driving was unanimously approved by a House of Delegates committee yesterday.

Sen. Jay O’Brien’s bill faces a tougher test on the House floor, where a similar bill died by a narrow margin earlier in the session. This is the third consecutive year the Fairfax County Republican has proposed the cell phone ban.

“Smoking and drinking are not good for young folks, so we ban it,” said Delegate Dave W. Marsden, Fairfax County Democrat. “This isn’t a good bill, it’s a great bill.”

Mr. O’Brien said cell phones are a dangerous distraction for novice drivers. He told the Transportation Committee it is appropriate to prohibit the use of any wireless telecommunications device by drivers until they have “miles and miles of experience.”

Martha Meade, spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said a survey showed that distracted driving has eclipsed aggressive and drunken driving as the No. 1 safety concern of the auto club’s 1.2 million members.

Despite the unanimous vote, some delegates voiced concerns.

Delegate William H. Fralin Jr., Roanoke Republican, suggested the measure could hurt teenage pizza delivery drivers, furniture movers and rural fire department volunteers. Mr. O’Brien said he opposed amending the bill to add a work exemption because of the potentially dire consequences of phone use while driving.

“The risk of a screw-up could be their death — and it happens,” Mr. O’Brien said.

Delegate John J. Welch III, Virginia Beach Republican, proposed an amendment to also prohibit teen drivers from eating, drinking, smoking, reading, writing, personal grooming and interacting with a pet. He said a sweeping attack on distractions is appropriate “if we’re going to go down this path and don’t want parents to make decisions and you want to do it for them.”

The committee rejected the amendment after Mr. O’Brien argued that “it trivializes my bill.”

His biggest worry now, Mr. O’Brien said, is that the House might amend the bill to carve out an exception for hands-free devices. He said that would essentially gut the bill because even hands-free devices are distracting.

Two years ago, Mr. O’Brien withdrew his bill after such an amendment was added in the House. Last year’s legislation died in subcommittee.

Traffic safety advocates support the legislation, citing statistics from the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Virginia Commonwealth University Transportation Safety Center showing 300 crashes involving 16- and 17-year-old drivers on cell phones in 2004 and 2005.

Thirteen states and the District already bar cell phone use by teen drivers, Mr. O’Brien said.

• Illegal aliens

A Senate committee yesterday killed a bill that would have prohibited Virginia’s colleges and universities from granting in-state tuition to illegal aliens.

Delegate John S. Reid’s bill mirrors an attorney general opinion issued last summer that states that if Virginia allows illegal aliens to pay in-state tuition, it must do so for every U.S. citizen.

Supporters argued that granting in-state tuition provides an incentive to those who break the law. They also argue that even if illegal aliens received in-state tuition and got a degree, most companies wouldn’t hire them because they are in the country unlawfully.

A motion to kill the bill passed on an 8-7 vote.

A Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr., Augusta Republican, would have allowed in-state tuition for illegal aliens who meet certain criteria, including graduating from a Virginia high school, promising to seek legal status and having at least one parent who has paid state taxes.

The House Education Committee stripped that language out of Mr. Hanger’s bill on Wednesday to make it conform to Mr. Reid’s. The full House is expected to pass it, but Mr. Reid said he knew the Senate would not agree to the changes, sending the issue into negotiations.

• HPV vaccine

Identical versions of a bill to require all girls entering the sixth grade to receive a vaccine for the sexually transmitted virus that can cause cervical cancer passed out of the House and a Senate panel yesterday.

About 99 percent of the cases of cervical cancer, which kills 10 women a day nationwide, are linked to the human papillomavirus, or HPV, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Senate version was changed earlier in the week to conform to a House bill that allowed parents to review information about the vaccine and exempt their daughters if they wish. Exemptions already exist for parents who object to mandated vaccines for religious or medical reasons.

The House passed the Senate version on a 66-32 vote after some legislators expressed concern about the infancy of the vaccine, which the federal government approved in June and suggested it be given to females around age 11 or 12 before they become sexually active. The vaccine is given in a series of three shots over a six-month period at a cost of $360.

The vaccinations would not be required until the 2009 school year, so supporters argue that gives sufficient time to study any side effects before Virginia’s girls would be required to get it.

The Senate Education and Health Committee passed the House version on a voice vote. If the full Senate passes the bill without changing it, it would head to the governor for consideration.

• Smoking in eateries

Restaurants could do away with nonsmoking sections as long was they posted signs saying they permitted smoking under legislation that cleared a Senate committee yesterday.

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican, said he hoped requiring restaurants to post the “Smoking Permitted” signs would persuade more to go smoke-free. He said most restaurants have an “imaginary line” separating the smoking and nonsmoking sections and that the bill would “do away with the fiction of the no-smoking section.”

Opponents said it would be a step backward for Virginia by repealing the 1990 Virginia Clean Indoor Air Act that requires restaurants to offer nonsmoking sections if they seat 50 or more customers. If Mr. Griffith’s bill passes, it would apply to restaurants that offer seating for at least one customer.

The Senate Education and Health Committee voted 11-3 to pass the bill after it was amended to exclude those covered by local ordinances that were in place before 1990.

• Parental notification

A bill that would have required schools to notify parents if their child was removed from class for two consecutive days died in a Senate committee yesterday.

Instead, senators will write a letter requesting the Department of Education study the issue and report back to the legislature.

Senators heard stories of children being placed alone in rooms, in closets and even in a cardboard box for misbehaving or disturbing class, but decided to leave such guidelines to the education department.

• Club participation

Legislation requiring students at public high schools to have a parent’s permission to participate in certain extracurricular clubs died in a Senate committee yesterday.

The bill failed on a 9-6 vote in the Senate Education and Health Committee. It would have required parents of middle school and high school students to identify clubs they didn’t want their children to join.

Homosexual rights advocates have said the legislation is intended to undermine homosexual-straight alliances — clubs formed to encourage tolerance and provide a safe haven for homosexual students to discuss their problems.

Opponents of the bill joined several lawmakers who said such decisions should be left to local school boards.

The bill had passed out of the House on an 82-15 vote.

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