Who among us hasn’t witnessed a motorist using a cellphone, gabbing away and oblivious to the traffic around them? Or worse still, steadying their smartphone on the steering wheel as they check email or respond to a text? It’s a disturbing sight to see.
The General Assembly came oh-so close last year to enacting legislation to protect Virginians on the commonwealth’s highways by banning use of hand-held cellphones while operating a motor vehicle, but pulled back at the last minute. Why? Some legislators pulled out the old canard about “the nanny state.” Others, including some members of the Legislative Black Caucus, feared that it would give police an excuse to target minority drivers. In the end, the only successful bill that emerged from the 2019 Assembly session was one that made it illegal to use a cellphone when driving through a highway work zone.
But consider these statistics about distracted driving, in which cellphone use is the driving factor:
» In 2017, an estimated 391,000 drivers were injured in distracted-driving crashes.
» Distracted drivers were the reported cause of death of more than 3,450 people in 2016.
» In 2019, distracted driving was a reported factor in 8.5 percent of all fatal crashes.
» The National Safety Council, in its most recent reports, stated that cellphone use while driving leads to more than 1.6 crashes each year and that one out of every four car crashes in the United States is caused by texting and driving.
This year, state Sen. Scott Surovell, a Fairfax Democrat, is trying again to make it illegal for drivers in Virginia to use hand-held cellphones while operating a motor vehicle. The senator has been working for toughened cellphone usage laws since 2012. Senate Bill 160 is currently awaiting a hearing before the Senate Transportation Committee, and a companion bill has been introduced in the House of Delegates.
According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Surovell began his crusade against distracted driving and cellphone usage when a family whose 18-year-old son was killed by a driver who was texting up to the moment of the crash in 2011 and who described the shock and pain when they learned there were hardly any legal consequences for the driver under state law.
Also helping Surovell in his crusade has been the family of Tristan Schulz, whose tale of anguish will break even the hardest heart. In 2016, Mindy Schulz was pushing her 5-1/2-month-old son in a stroller through a crosswalk in Loudoun County when a driver on a cellphone plowed into him, killing him instantly. Because of Virginia’s weak laws, golf instructor John F. Miller IV was only convicted of two misdemeanor charges stemming from the tragedy.
Virginia, it is time to step up and address this growing safety issue: Ban the use of a hand-held cellphone while driving. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia already do so. It’s past time the commonwealth joined their ranks.