Talking and Driving: Cell Phone Use in Virginia
Driving Safely Means Driving Without Distraction
Recently, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute released a shocking statistic. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, accidents caused as a result of distracted driving now outpace accidents caused by drunk driving and those caused by excessive speed. That makes distracted driving the most dangerous thing you can do while driving. A fifth of all fatal crashes in Virginia involve distracted driving, and text messaging while driving increases the risk of a crash by 23 times. We have heard it before -- don’t text and drive. But how many of us are guilty of sneaking a peek at the screen while driving?
Is it Actually Illegal to Use a Cell Phone While Driving in Virginia?
In many states throughout the US, there are various laws on the books restricting the use of phones while driving. In Virginia, you may have heard mixed information about how much restriction is in place. That is because the laws about distracted driving are not straightforward in Virginia. Under current law,
It is illegal for drivers under the age of 18 to use their cell phones while driving at all (this includes hands-free cell phone use).
For drivers over the age of 18, cell phone use while driving is permitted (because there is no ban on handheld use, a driver cannot be pulled over simply for holding his or her phone).
However, texting while driving is prohibited for all drivers. Texting while driving is considered a primary offense, so an officer can legally pull a driver over if he or she suspects that the driver may be texting.
“Texting” under the law is defined as manually entering multiple letters into a device as a means of communication or reading any email or text message.
If an officer issues a ticket for texting while driving, the fine is $125 for a first offense and $250 for each ensuing violation.
In Virginia, there are a number of moving violations that can result in a reckless driving charge (a class 1 misdemeanor), including exceeding the speed limit by more than 20 miles per hour, failing to use turn signals, and unsafe passing. Reckless driving is punishable by up to twelve months in jail and/or a maximum fine of $1,000. If reckless driving is accompanied by cell phone use, the judge can add an additional $250 fine and can choose to suspend the driver’s license for up to six months and issue three points on the license per violation.
Under these current laws, it is very difficult for an officer to tell if a driver is committing a violation because it is very difficult to tell the difference between “texting” under the law and just looking at something on your screen. Officers have said that the current laws are too difficult to enforce. Activists have also pointed out that merely looking at a screen while driving can be as dangerous as entering characters for the purpose of communication.
In March of this year, the Virginia Senate voted to support a “hands free” law in Virginia which would limit cell phone use while driving to hands free devices. The hands free law would limit cell use to voice-activated speakerphone calls, and GPS and music streaming only if the phone is mounted on the dashboard or windshield. However, the bill ultimately failed in the House.
Insurance Impacts of Distracted Driving
Despite the fact that not all cell phone use is considered illegal in Virginia, using a cell phone while driving is still a dangerous habit. For this reason, there are other impacts that can occur in addition to the threat of legal consequences.
Insurance companies, for example, are increasingly concerned about the distracted driving practices of their insured. Any distracted driving infraction that goes on your record, you can assume will have a negative impact on your car insurance premiums, and points on your license are a virtual guarantee of a rate hike. According to CarInsurance.com, a texting ticket will raise rates on average by 15%, depending on the insured’s state. Insurers often check your driving record when issuing new policies or renewing existing ones (usually every six months). Multiple violations, of course, will result in even greater impacts on your insurance costs.
Determining Fault in an Accident Involving Cell Phones
When injury occurs in a car accident, the injured party often will hire a personal injury attorney to pursue the negligent party for compensation for any injuries suffered. In a personal injury negotiation in Virginia, the injured party has to demonstrate
a. That they were injured
b. That the injuries were caused by the accident
c. That the accident was 100% the fault of the negligent party
In Virginia, civil suits that involve conscious disregard for someone else’s safety can also result in a finding for punitive damages. Although this has not yet been tested in Virginia courts, it is possible that a judge would award punitive damages (up to $350,000, per the Virginia cap on punitive damages) in a particularly egregious case of distracted driving that caused serious harm.
Have You Been Injured in an Accident Caused by Distracted Driving?
If you have been injured in an accident that involved distracted driving, you may be entitled to compensation. Contact the experienced personal injury attorneys at Wakefield Law to learn more about distracted driving in Virginia and possible options to pursue a personal injury claim. Our office number is (703) 771-9740.