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Richmond City voting to join Spotsylvania County and Hampton City in banning handheld cell phone use while driving

In 2018, there were 1,618 automobile crashes, 105 serious injuries, and 10 deaths in Virginia reported as attributable to cell phone use while driving (the actual number may be higher). See 2018 Virginia Traffic Crash Facts, Virginia DMV, available at https://www.dmv.virginia.gov/safety/crash_data/crash_facts/crash_facts_18.pdf. Richmond drivers have notoriously high rates of accidents, speeding tickets, DUIs, and citations. A recent study by QuoteWizard identified Richmond as the 10th worst driving city in America based on the aforementioned categories. See The Best and Worst Drivers By City, QuoteWizard Insurance News, October 10, 2019, available at https://quotewizard.com/news/posts/the-best-and-worst-drivers-by-city.

Currently, Virginia Code § 46.2-1078.1 prohibits sending or reading text messages and emails while driving. However, Virginia law does not prohibit other uses of cell phones while driving, including watching videos, browsing Facebook, online shopping, or playing mobile games (except while in a work zone). The Virginia House of Representatives failed to pass HB 1811, an attempt to broaden Virginia law to prohibit a driver from holding a cellphone while driving for any reason outside of a limited set of exemptions, in February of 2019. See HB 1811 summary, available at http://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?ses=191&typ=bil&val=hb1811.

At the October 14, 2019 Richmond City Council meeting, Mayor Levar Stoney introduced an Richmond City ordinance that would broadly prohibit the use of a handheld cell phone for any reason within Richmond City limits, with certain exceptions for dialing 911 or use by emergency personnel. The new ordinance, Section 27-40.1 of the Code of the City of Richmond, would automatically designate anyone who drives while “using” a personal handheld communications device as being guilty of the new offense of “distracted driving.” The proposed ordinance would mirror one passed earlier this year in Hampton City, although most Virginia localities still have no such prohibition. See New Hampton law targets drivers distracted by cell-phone use, Hampton City Council News Flash, January 16, 2019, available at https://hampton.gov/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=3745. Violation of the proposed City ordinance would carry relatively light penalties – $125 for a first offense and $250 thereafter. However, violation of City ordinance can be (and are) used as a proxy for negligence analysis by Plaintiff’s attorneys to argue whether the driver violated the standard of care. It’s also just not smart to add any unnecessary distractions while driving, even if you are technically driving in Henrico at the time.

The bill is currently scheduled to be heard before Richmond City Council on December 9, 2019 for a final vote. The version that will be heard before the Council at that time is:

Sec. 27-40.1. Distracted driving.

(a) Any person who drives a motor vehicle on any public street or highway in the city while using any handheld personal communications device is guilty of distracted driving.

(b) The provisions of this section shall not apply to an operator (i) of any emergency vehicle while the operator is engaged in the performance of the operator’s official duties; (ii) who is lawfully stopped or parked; (iii) who is using a handheld personal communications device to report an emergency; or (iv) who is using a handheld radio-based communications device during an emergency or disaster relief operation.

(c) A violation of this section shall constitute a separate and distinct offense. The provisions of this section shall not preclude prosecution under any other statute or ordinance.

(d) A violation of this section is a traffic infraction punishable for a first offense by a fine of $125.00 and for a second or subsequent offense by a fine of $250.00, which shall be paid to the City treasury.

If you have any questions about this article, or about Virginia driving laws in general, contact Matthias Kaseorg (804-377-1273) at mkaseorg@setlifflaw.com or Steve Setliff (804-377-1261) at ssetliff@setlifflaw.com.