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Drive, Don't Text

New law restricts cell phone use by teen drivers

An assortment of new traffic laws, including forbidding teen drivers from using cell phones while driving, went into effect Sunday throughout the state. According to those heading the legislation, the stricter, tougher regulations are intended save lives and reduce lawlessness and recklessness on roadways.

The cell phone ban was among several new laws approved by the Virginia General Assembly and will prohibit teenage drivers with a probationary license from talking, sending text messages or taking photos with a phone while operating a car. The ban also applies to hands-free devices, and the only exceptions are in an event of emergency or when parked or stopped.

State Sen. Jay O’Brien (R-39) led the movement to push the new law, SB 1039, through legislation along with the help of AAA Mid-Atlantic. According to O’Brien, the cell phone restriction was a necessary step forward in keeping roadways as safe as possible while training young drivers to be safe behind the wheel.

"The dynamic is changing," said O’Brien, who cited his own four teenage drivers as one of the reasons he pushed so strongly for this bill. "We’re very, very glad to see this bill passed. Cell phone use is much more prevalent now, and with the use of text messages, young drivers are much more distracted. Hopefully, with this law, we’ll be helping them gain the miles of experience behind the wheel in a safe way."

VIRGINIA JOINS 13 other states and the District of Columbia to have a law prohibiting teens from using their cell phone while driving. In 2006, 33 states introduced similar legislation.

Among the other notable restrictions include the return of red light cameras, an increase in the age minimum from 6 to 8 for children riding in a booster seat, as well as tougher traffic fees for violators and repeat offenders.

Now, throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia, motorists will have to ease off the gas pedal or face hefty fines. Civil fees for reckless drivers going 20 mph over the speed limit can be as high as $1,050 and repeat drunk drivers can be fined up to $3,000.

Lon Anderson, director of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, worked with O’Brien to get the bill passed through the General Assembly. Like O’Brien, Anderson believes that the cell phone restriction is a major step forward in protecting young drivers.

"Teenagers are statistically the worst drivers," Anderson said. "They get into nine times the number of crashes as adults. They have less experience, they take more risks and make bad decisions behind the wheel. It’s very, very important to limit their distractions, such as those they get from dialing on their phones and texting."

Fairfax County Council of PTAs President Michele Menapace is also a supporter of the new law.

"This law is a step in the right direction," she said. "Any time we take a step toward protecting our children, it’s a good thing. The bill is meant to preserve the safety of students and children while driving, and it will depend on the ability of police to enforce the law and encourage following it."

Statistically, teenagers are the most dangerous drivers on the roadways. According to a study by the University of Utah, auto crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers, causing two out of every five fatalities. Also, 16-year-olds have twice the fatal crash rate per mile than 18 and 19-year-olds.

Distractions also play a role in traffic accidents, and the bill aims to reduce that in the coming years. Distracted drivers, regardless of age group, play a role in 25-50 percent of all vehicle crashes, the study said.

Although the law is now in effect, Anderson said it’s going to take time before it’s able to achieve its goal.

"We’re going to have to look back five years or so from now and look at the statistics," he said. "Our main goal of taking cell phones out of teen drivers’ hands is going to make the drivers pay attention. We also want to give parents and law enforcement every tool they can to help drivers stay safe."