Bills supporting tougher texting-while-driving penalties continue to advance in the General Assembly.
Legislation cleared the Senate Courts of Justice Committee on Monday. It would make texting or emailing while operating a vehicle a reckless offense in certain instances, give police more latitude to stop suspected offenders and impose fines of up to $500.
A similar measure is pending in the House of Delegates.
That progress has been years in the making.
"It's heading in the right direction," said Sen. George Barker, a Fairfax County Democrat who's carried texting bills for several years. "This is substantially further than we've ever gotten before."
Barker's texting bills were rolled into Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment's bill (SB1222) and passed by the committee on a 9-6 vote.
Barker's main 2012 texting bill, which cleared the Senate before falling in a House subcommittee, didn't have SB1222's teeth. It made texting a primary offense but didn't boost fines.
This year, similar legislation from Del. Rich Anderson, R-Prince William County, was sent to the House Courts of Justice Committee - not the Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee that killed past texting proposals.
The full House approved Anderson's bill (HB1907) on a preliminary vote Monday. A final vote is expected today.
Both measures would allow police to stop a person solely for suspected texting while increasing fines to $250 for a first offense and $500 for subsequent citations. They would also mandate a minimum $500 fine for people convicted of reckless driving who violated the texting law at the same time.
A texting prohibition was added to Virginia law in 2009 - Del. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, carried the legislation - but safe driving advocates have long complained that it isn't strong enough.
Current law makes texting and driving a secondary offense, meaning police can't stop motorists for it but can cite violators if they are pulled over for another infraction. Penalties are a $20 fine for the first offense and $50 for subsequent violations.
Before the bill advanced, Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford County, voiced concerns about putting police in a position to make judgment calls when an "officer cannot distinguish" whether a driver is "picking up a device" to text or dial a phone number.
Norment, R-James City County, defended the combined legislation as appropriate, given how critical a problem texting while driving is, but said he expects the Senate vote to advance it will be "fairly tight."
Barker said texting is an "extraordinarily dangerous offense," citing statistics indicating that drivers typing on a handheld device are 23 times more likely to be involved in an accident.
Pilot writer Bill Sizemore contributed to this article.
Julian Walker, 804-697-1564, email@example.com