By Betsy Cribb
At least 23 percent of all car crashes in the United States involve cell phone use. This amounts to about 1.3 million car crashes each year — 100,000 of which are specifically tied to text messaging, according to a 2011 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Texting while driving is a primary offense in 35 states, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, an organization that creates programs to reduce speeding and impaired driving.
Virginia could become the 36th state to follow suit if Gov. Bob McDonnell signs a bill that would allow law enforcement officers to pull drivers over for texting.
Texting while driving is a secondary offense in Virginia. This means that a driver would need to commit another offense, such as speeding or making an illegal lane change, to be pulled over by law enforcement, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.
Lexington Police Captain Bucky Miller says Lexington law enforcement has yet to ticket someone for texting while driving.
“I don’t think it’s going to be that hard for police officers to actually see people texting. We see it now,” Miller said. “It’s pretty obvious when somebody’s doing it.”
He expects that, if signed, the bill would become one of his department’s top priorities and a law that will be relatively easy to enforce.
The bill states that first-time offenders must pay a $250 fee, while subsequent offenders would be fined an additional $500. Drivers will not be penalized if they are using their cell phones to report an emergency or if the car is parked or stopped.
Miller says this behavior might be tough to break, even with a stricter laws and fines in place.
“If my phone slides across the seat and it rings, I go for my phone,” Miller said. “That’s just how people are programmed now.”
Miller says he specifically worries about young drivers because texting is such a significant form of communication for teens.
“I’ve got young nieces, I go to the high school. All they do—they could be 15 feet away from each other—and they text,” Miller said. “It’s going to be so hard for young people that have grown up doing this to stop.”
Sydney Garvis, 17, said she tries not to text and drive.
“I try, if somebody texts me, [to] either wait for a stoplight or make whoever else is riding with me respond,” Garvis said.
Kristina Troxell, 20, says about half of her friends text while driving.
“I think it’s because they can’t wait to look at their phone until they’ve stopped,” she said. “Texting and driving worries me because a lot of other vehicles that are texting and driving could hit you even when you’re not texting and driving.”
Miller says he believes parents will be the most influential forces in keeping their children from texting and driving.
“I think with the teenagers, it’s really going to be the parents,” Miller said. “A parent’s going to know that their child is texting or driving before the police are going to know…[A parent is] what’s going to change the younger behavior. It’s not going to be us.”
Lexington resident Rhonda Sedovy doesn’t have any children who drive yet, but she knows that texting and driving is a big issue.
“It is such a temptation for myself,” Sedovy said. “Honestly, I’m tied to my smartphone.”
The bill has already passed in the House and the Senate, according to Virginia’s Legislative Information System. Now, it needs McDonnell’s approval before it becomes law.