Virginia texting law inches closer to passage

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Tapping on your BlackBerry or iPhone while driving is going to cost you if a bill a Senate committee overwhelmingly endorsed Monday becomes law.

On a 10-4 vote, the Senate Courts of Justice Committee approved legislation that makes texting or emailing while driving a primary offense in Virginia.

It's already a secondary offense, meaning you can be ticketed for texting at the wheel only if pulled over for another offense.

It would not apply to talking on cell phones while driving.

Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, said his bill authorizing police to hit the blue lights just for catching a driver texting is a response to 50 percent surge from 2006 to 2009 in traffic accidents attributed to drivers distracted by their smart phones, and motorists growing more impatient over it.

"The public is very concerned about these people and they are afraid of drivers out there who are texting and not paying attention to their driving," Barker said.

AAA Mid-Atlantic and other automobile safety groups have also endorsed the legislation, which Virginia lawmakers have resisted for years.

"Everybody knows this has become a serious problem," said Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke. "Texting is particularly serious because you're sitting there with your head down looking at a computer. It's an epidemic."

Opponents questioned whether the bill would force the police to make spot judgments whether drivers are texting - a distinction that includes writing or reading emails, tweets, Facebook posts - or merely dialing a mobile phone.

Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, called the measure "invasive" and asked Barker if police would have the power to confiscate and analyze smart phones on the spot.

Barker said drivers would have the opportunity to show officers what they were doing when they officers catch them.

Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, and the committee chairman, Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, said they feared the measure could pre-empt officers from a more serious charge of reckless driving, which is punishable by up to a year in jail, a $2,500 fine or both.

"Are you going to take that away from them and give them just a $25 fine," Stuart asked.

Barker and fellow Democratic Sen. John Edwards of Roanoke said nothing in the bill would override an officer's judgment or his ability to cite a driver for several offenses, including reckless driving.