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Proposal would ban holding cellphones while driving

Karen Giles was proud of her 30 years as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician, her daughter said, until she was killed last February when a dump truck driver looked down at his phone to text a friend about a Valentine’s Day gift.

Giles’ daughter, Meredith Spies, said she now forgives that driver. But in a press conference Jan. 22, she also said the current sentencing guidelines are not harsh enough.

“We need to put our phones down,” Spies said. “And we need a punishment in place that will take over the need to eat, the need to put on your Chapstick, the need to answer that notification.”

Spies spoke in support of House Bill 874, currently being considered in the General Assembly. The bill would prohibit holding a handheld personal communications device while driving a motor vehicle.

Current law prohibits reading or typing messages on a personal communications device while driving. However, holding such a device is legal, except while driving in a work zone.

The bill’s sponsor, Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, called the resolve of Spies and others who are pushing for legislation to prevent distracted driving “truly inspiring.”

“Too many people are being affected, being killed, being harmed,” Bourne said. “Families are being tormented by distracted driving and those accidents that result from that.”

Last fall, Richmond City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to ban using mobile devices while driving. A bill hoping to curb distracted driving in the 2019 General Assembly session passed the Senate but failed in the House. If HB 874 can make it out of the House and Senate this session, then a signature from Gov. Ralph Northam would make the same policy statewide law.

“We want to make sure that everyone is safe and that distracted driving goes down rather than up,” Bourne said.

Richmond Police Chief Will Smith said during the press conference that his department supports HB 874 and that anyone with children shouldn’t be surprised by the proposal.

“One of the very first things that we all talk about with our kids is, ‘make sure that you leave your phone out of your hand and don’t text, don’t call until you get to your destination,’” Smith said. “Yet we, as an adult society, tend not to obey our own advice.”

Smith said there were over 1,000 accidents involving distracted driving in the city last year, up from 950 in 2018. He said the ordinance passed by City Council last year mimics HB 874.

“We see this as a very positive opportunity to improve the safety of our traveling public, those who are pedestrians on our sidewalks and our cyclists in the streets,” Smith said.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said during the press conference that using phones while driving has become an epidemic. It’s currently legal to drive and use a phone to play “Angry Birds, or while browsing the internet,” he noted.

Surovell believes HB 874, now at the hands of the House motor vehicles subcommittee, has a strong chance of becoming law. He thanked Bourne for his support of similar legislation over the past four years.

“While I certainly can’t tell the future,” Bourne said, “I’m very, very confident that at some point in 2020, we’ll all be together again, watching the governor sign this bill into law.”

-ANDREW RINGLE, Capital News Service

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