AP/Robert F. Bukaty
You may soon get a $125 fine if a police officer in Virginia pulls you over for texting while driving.
Virginia lawmakers are expected to voice their approval this week for a bill that will make texting while driving a primary offense.
It's a measure that is long overdue, according to Debbie Pickford, chair of the board of Drive Smart Virginia.
"Right now a policeman can pull someone over if they see something else
going on in the car. They cannot pull them over if they see you texting
while driving," Pickford says.
The original bill call for fines of $250 for first-time offenders, and $500 for subsequent offenses. Gov. Bob McDonnell reduced those fines to $125 and $250 respectively, which a spokesman says keeps them more in line with similar offenses like reckless driving. Either way, it's a far cry from the current law, where texting is a secondary offense with a mere $20 fine.
Campaign doesn't stop with law
While safety advocates are getting some help in Richmond, their efforts involved more than just changes to penalties. They're asking motorists to sign a pledge for Distracted Driving Awareness Month — a simple promise to break the habit of texting while driving, which they say is a potentially deadly one.
"I think we're getting to the point where people are starting to understand and recognize that, but I'm not sure people are quite aware of how dangerous it is," says Pickford.
Just how dangerous? Texting while driving increases your risk of a crash by 23 times, according to a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. Eighty percent of all crashes and 65 percent of all near crashes involve driver inattention within three seconds before the accident.
Despite these findings, Pickford says it has been difficult convincing teenagers as well as adults to drop their gadgets and keep two eyes on the road.
"The problem is getting worse," she says.
According to a report by the Governors Highway Safety Association, teen driver deaths went up in the first six months of 2012 compared to the same period the prior year, and Pickford says a big reason is driver distractions like smart phones.
"We're a multitasking society. We're a busy society," Pickford says. "I think multitasking has become a way of life, so people are just trying to get things done when they are in their cars and there is a lot more you can do now on a smartphone."
Affecting a change in perception
Distracted Driving Awareness Month was once just one week, and advocates plans to extend their activities well passed April anyway into the "dangerous months" for teenagers when proms and graduation parties increase the potential for risky road behaviors.
Ultimately safety advocates would like society to view distracted driving the same way it now sees drunk driving, but Pickford concedes that will take many years.
"It took a while for society to get to the fact that drinking and driving is really very dangerous, so I think it will take a few years to build this campaign and make people aware," she says. "It doesn't happen over night and it's why we have gone from a week to a month. We are hosting a distracted driving summit in September in Richmond."
Drive Smart Virginia says youth education starts in the car with parents. Children as young as 5 begin to pick up their parents' driving behaviors, so she is urging parents to set good examples and refrain from using hand-held cell phones at the wheel.