In 2009, Virginia (VA) became one of 32 states nationwide to enact laws that prohibit all drivers from sending or reading text messages or emails while driving. Distracted driving, which all too frequently involves cell phone use while driving, is a major contributor to car accidents and fatalities, making Virginia’s passage of the law and its implementation an important step towards making our roads safer by putting the brakes on distracted driving.
But the passage and implementation of the no texting law only takes us so far; we also need strict enforcement of the law. Unfortunately, some recent data from the Virginia (VA) court system raises questions about whether enough efforts are being made to enforce the law. Traffic courts in the regions 5 major cities, plus Hampton and Newport News only resolved a total 77 texting-while-driving cases last year. The Virginia Beach Police Department was the most aggressive in enforcing the law; 51 of the total number of cases came out of Virginia Beach. The majority of individuals cited ended up paying only a small fine of $20, while about a fourth of the citations were ultimately dismissed or found not guilty.
There are some challenges to enforcement. First, the Virginia law makes texting while driving a secondary offense, which means that an officer can only issue a citation for texting if they are also issuing a citation for another traffic violation such as speeding or running a red light. In addition, making the determination that someone is texting while driving is not always easy for law enforcement, and often requires the officer to be near the driver in question. Behavior associated with impaired driving—such as weaving and erratic lane changes—or a driver looking up and down while driving are telltale signs of texting while driving according to law Sgt. Scott Wichtendahl who is in charge of the Virginia Beach Police Department’s Traffic Safety Unit.
Despite the enforcement challenges, the statistics tell us that deterring texting while driving is necessary. Wichtendahl estimates that up to 10% of all crashes in the city involve cell phone use while driving, which results in behavior that his officers have compared to drunk driving. National data and studies back this up: 20% of injury crashes in 2009 involved distracted driving, and a full 18% of those were related to cell phone distractions.
Distracted driving caused by cell phone use continues to be an issue requiring our attention. While law enforcement personnel work to curtail this risky behavior, all of us share in the responsibility to set our phones down when we’re behind the wheel.
About the Editors: The Shapiro, Cooper, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as a pro bono service.