It’s About to Be Illegal to Hold a Phone While Driving in Virginia

By Amie Knowles

December 21, 2020

In less than two weeks, holding your phone while driving will be illegal in Virginia.

RICHMOND – Sending just one quick text from your phone won’t hurt, right? It will if you’re doing it while driving after January 1.

Aside from potentially harming the driver, occupants or other motorists in a distracted driving car accident, having a phone in the driver’s hand will also hurt their wallet at the start of the New Year.

In July, holding a personal communications device – like a cell phone – became illegal for Virginians while behind the wheel. The commonwealth allowed a six-month grace period, allowing for public education about the new law.

With less than two weeks until the law comes with repercussions, Drive Smart Virginia executive director Janet Brooking spoke about the change.

Distracted driving

It doesn’t matter if it’s texting or talking – if someone takes their eyes off of the road or hands off of the wheel to use a different device, they’re not giving driving their full attention.

Virginia currently prohibits distracted driving actions including reading, writing, sending text messages or emails, the use of handheld cell phones in work zones; commercial drivers and school bus drivers from holding a cell phone and text messaging; and drivers under the age of 18 from using cell phones, even in hands-free mode.

According to statistics provided by Trusted Source, distracted driving is a problem in Virginia.

The site estimated that in 2018, distracted driving caused 18.5% of all crashes in Virginia. That year, distracted driving caused 24,350 accidents in the commonwealth. Of those, 1,618 involved cell phone use and 183 involved texting. Distracted driving accidents in Virginia caused 13,733 injuries and 126 deaths in 2018.

In comparison during the same year, driving under the influence caused 7,181 accidents, 4,430 injuries and 278 fatalities.

In 2018, an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety roadside survey found that 57% of Virginia drivers were more likely to manipulate a cell phone than drivers in a 2014 survey.

Brooking spoke specifically about the use of cell phones as the action pertained to distracted driving.

“There are many, many, many, many driving distractions,” Brooking said. “Using a handheld device is the most egregious of all of those distractions because it involves all three kinds of driver distractions. It’s a manual distraction, it’s a cognitive distraction and it’s a visual distraction. So it’s just a bad, bad, bad thing to do all around.”

Texting and driving

It’s almost instantaneous. When a notification dings, it’s nearly compulsory to check it as quickly as possible. That’s not the best idea while driving.

“I think that particularly during COVID, this law could not take effect at a more opportune time. I think during COVID, our wireless devices, our phones, for many of us are our lifelines to the outside public,” Brooking said. “Many of us are isolating ourselves, we’re staying safe. So these phones are taking on, have become larger than life.”

Brooking noted that when the first cell phone driving law passed in 2009, flip phones were the devices of the day. While individuals could text, hardly anyone had smart phone capabilities. Over a decade, things changed.

“This thing that we’re looking at now, it’s a mini computer that we carry with us. I think it will show that people are addicted to getting this little dopamine rush when they get a text. It makes people think, ‘Oh, somebody’s thinking of me.’ ‘Oh, wow. I’m communicating with people,’” Brooking said. “There’s so many ways you can use it. You can stay hooked in on Facebook, Twitter, play your games, shop. There are just so very many things that you can do.”

Taking the phone out of the driver’s hand might delay gratification, but could in turn save lives.

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The law

In Virginia, there are two reasons law enforcement officers pull over motorist for distracted driving.

First, there’s primary enforcement. That happens when an officer observes an individual violating a distracted driving law.

Secondary enforcement occurs when police cite motorists for violating distracted driving laws if they break another law while doing so.

The new law allows for primary enforcement. Therefore, if an officer observes a motorist holding a cell phone while driving, they have every right to pull over the driver.

“This law is a neat law. It’s a well-done law. It’s a well thought through law that a lot of people came to the table. A lot of people had some input. I think that the legislature worked really hard to accommodate all of the different needs that people had around it. All you have to do, or what it says, is that you cannot hold the phone while you’re driving in the Commonwealth of Virginia. So it’s neat because it’s just that cut and dry. There are no gray areas. Either you’re holding it or you’re not.”

Brooking noted that using hands-free devices, like syncing a phone with a vehicle’s Bluetooth capabilities or utilizing a mount for GPS navigation, talking or music listening purposes, is still totally legal.

“If you’re holding the phone, you’re violating the law,” Brooking said. “If you’re using it and it’s not being held, you’re not violating the law.”

Violating the law

After Jan. 1, if an individual does not comply with the new cell phone law while driving, they could face a costly penalty.

The repercussions come in the form of fines – and they aren’t cheap, especially for a repeat offense.  

First time offenders face a $125 fine, which doubles to $250 for the second offense. Breaking the law in a highway work zone also comes with a mandatory $250 fine.

But the law isn’t about the money – and that’s the takeaway Brooking expressed hope that people gathered.

“I think that what people need to realize and will soon realize is that this is a life-saving law. This is not about law enforcement. This is not about law and order. It’s about personal safety. It’s about saving lives. That is the number one thing it’s about,” Brooking said. “Distracted driving is becoming a health epidemic. People are having a hard time changing their behaviors so it was important to put a law into place to help people understand how serious this issue is and how very important it is that they change their behaviors in order to save lives.”

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected]

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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