Tougher Virginia texting while driving laws sought

RICHMOND, Va. (AP/WJLA) - The Virginia State Crime Commission has endorsed tougher penalties for illegal cigarette trafficking and texting while driving.

The panel made those two proposals part of its 2013 legislative agenda at its final meeting of the year Wednesday.

The commission will ask lawmakers to increase penalties for people who buy large quantities of cigarettes in Virginia for resale on the street in states that have a higher tobacco tax.

Experts have told the commission that cigarette smuggling has dramatically increased because it's more profitable than drug dealing, and the penalties are not as harsh.

Texting while driving also is a growing problem. It's now a civil offense, but the commission wants to make it punishable as reckless driving.

Virginia driver Nick Klissas said, "It's kind of irresistible to do it when you're in stop and go traffic. You might be late for a meeting or maybe you have to pick up your daughter from ballet class."

But parents don't want their children picking up dangerous habits behind the wheel.

Banu Gurler says the only way she'll have peace of mind when handing her daughter, Deniz, the car keys is if lawmakers crack down on texting and driving.

"I don't want her to drive and text at the same time, which I'm sure they will do if nobody is following them up," Gurler said.

Deniz, a Washington-Lee High School freshman, added, "I'm pretty addicted to texting. I wouldn't do it behind the wheel, but I'm pretty sure some of my friends might have problems with it."

While texting and driving is against the law in Virginia, police can only ticket drivers pulled over for another offense.

Paige Hamrick, a high school teacher and mother of two, says that's ridiculous.

Hamrick said, "I don't know how you can read or send a text and watch the road at the same time. I just don't get that."

Truck driver Timothy Krueger doesn't get it either. As a truck driver, if he texts behind the wheel, his company faces a fine of up to $11,000 thanks to federal law.

"It seems like the country is starting to become more aware how dangerous it is to do it...Virginia need[s] to get on the bandwagon and make the law tougher," Krueger added.

Virginia lawmakers will consider tougher penalties when they convene in Richmond next month.

Legislation on the table would allow police to pull over and charge any driver they see texting. Similar policing policies are already in effect in Maryland and D.C.

The penalty in Virginia could be up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

The Virginia bill being considered would apply not only to texting, but also playing games, reading email and any other use of a "hand-held communications device." Making a phone call would remain legal.