Virginia Senate Gets Tough on Teen Drivers, Passing Cell Phone Ban, Seat Belt and Curfew Bills

January 30, 2005

A bill that bans Virginia motorists younger than 18 from talking on cellular phones while driving and subjects them to tickets if they don’t wear seat belts won easy Senate passage last week.

By a 32-7 vote, a bill that its sponsor, Sen. Jay O’Brien, said would make Virginia the first state to ban minors from using mobile phones while driving a car was advanced to the House of Delegates.

“We feel that the teen driver with the provisional license and a learner’s permit should be dedicated to one single act, and that is the awesome responsibility of driving a car,” said O’Brien, R-Fairfax County.

“I can’t imagine what it costs a parent to lose a child. That’s the consequence of a teen fatality. It breaks hundreds of hearts,” he said.

The legislation is in line with a national trend the past two years to crack down on mobile phone use by drivers, particularly youthful ones, said Matt Sundeen, who studies transportation issues for the National Council of State Legislatures.

The National Transportation Safety Board last year recommended that states ban cell phone use by young drivers after the agency investigated a 2002 crash on the Washington Beltway in Maryland that killed five people. A 20-year-old who was talking on her cell phone lost control of her sport utility vehicle, which crossed the median, flipped and crushed a minivan. The SUV driver and four people in the minivan were killed.

Maine and New Jersey have already banned cell phone use by drivers under 21 who have only a learner’s permit. No state imposes a cell phone ban on licensed teen cell phone users, Sundeen said, but several legislatures this year are considering legislation similar to Virginia’s.

In debate on the bill last week, critics said it places an unreasonable burden on police officers to guess a driver’s age only from a fleeting glance through a windshield.

“What cause would a police officer have to pull over a vehicle of an individual on a cell phone if they thought they were under the age of 18? How would they tell,” Sen. Charles R. Hawkins, R-Pittsylvania.

Sen. William C. Mims said police officers make determinations every day about the age of drivers.

“In many municipalities, there are curfews at midnight, … and they apply only under age 18 and local police have to make the determination about whether to stop someone when they look young,” said Mims, R-Loudoun.

In addition to the seat-belt and phone requirements, the bill also imposes a midnight to 4 a.m. curfew except when the minor is driving beside a parent, responding to an emergency or going to or from work or a school-sponsored activity.

Virginia for several years has resisted enacting general restrictions on cell phone use by drivers, arguing that it is an undue restriction on privacy and personal liberty. It’s easier to restrict such bans on young people still learning how to drive, Sundeen said.

“This approach seems more politically palatable than the others,” he said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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