Holding a cellphone while driving now illegal in Virginia

By Terry Harris

As of January 1, holding a handheld personal communications device (cell phone) while driving a moving motor vehicle on the highways in Virginia became a primary offense, which means that law officers can now pull over drivers for the offense.

Further evidence that lawmakers are taking the offence seriously is the hefty $125 first-time offence fee – five times that of driving without a seatbelt - and additional offenses will double that fine.

Unlike the previous law which prohibited typing on phones while driving, the new law makes it much easier to enforce because defense attorneys can no longer argue that the driver was conducting a video call or checking social media; the new law focuses on merely holding a cell phone.

There are some exceptions relating to official duties of the operator of an emergency vehicle while “engaged in the performance of his official duties” and it is not illegal for a driver who is lawfully parked or stopped to hold their cell phone.  This is according to the state website Drive Safe Virginia, specifically developed to inform the public in advance of the January 1 change in the law.

Also, according to that Drive Safe Virginia website, the move to fortify the law was urged by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s identification of distracted driving as “a crisis that needs to be addressed now” as well as by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety’s finding that Virginia is one of 11 states considered “dangerously behind” in driving safety laws.

Some alarming statistics cited for the need for the change in the law include:

- Texting while driving, because it involves manual, visual, and cognitive distraction, elevates the risk of a crash by 2,300%.

- Zendrive estimates that because motorists with smart phones use hand-held devices in 88 out of every 100 trips, there are about 600 million trips involving distracted driving in the US every day.

- Virginia Tech found that “80% of all crashes and 65% of all near crashes involve driver inattention within 3 seconds of the crash.”

- Virginia DMV cites their reporting that 15% of all fatal crashes in 2018 were distraction-related as “likely understated as distraction is sometimes difficult to measure in the event of a fatality.”

When asked for his reaction to the change in the cell phone law, Sheriff Ernst Giles responded simply and directly, “I’m glad to see this law in effect due to the number of accidents in the past when a driver was not paying attention while on or fumbling with their cellphone during their operation of a motor vehicle.  If the calls are that important and in need of attention, simply find a spot and pull over if a hands-free device such as an earpiece is not utilized.  We all need to take this seriously.  We are still losing too many motorists to distracted driving in the State of Virginia.  It’s time for all of us to do our part.  IF YOU’RE NOT HANDS-FREE, STAY OFF THE PHONE OR GET OFF THE ROAD.”