Surovell Proposes Stronger Texting Penalties

Delegate teams up with Republican to make texting while driving a Class 1 misdemeanor with time in jail and $2,500 fine.

Del. Scott Surovell (D-44) announced Wednesday he is proposing legislation to make texting while driving a Class 1 misdemeanor with a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Surovell, a Democrat, is teaming up with Republican Del. Ben Cline of Rockbridge on the bill.

Four months ago Surovell represented a woman whose car was rear-ended by someone texting and ended up with $40,000 in medical bills. 

"This is a problem we're all paying for every day," he said in a news conference Wednesday.

Surovell, an attorney, told a story Wednesday about a client he represented. "A year and a half ago, a family's 19-year-old son [Kyle Rowley] came home from college and was driving home from Loudoun into Fairfax, at about 10:30 at night," he said.

The teen activated his flashers after he ran out of gas. As he was pushing his car off the road, he was struck from behind by a man with "2,000 feet of empty road, dry pavement, no other cars on the road," Surovell pointed out. The driver hit his client going 60 miles per hour and killed him instantly.

He was charged with reckless driving. "He was texting up until the point of impact," Surovell said.

The judge "basically dismissed the charge. He was found not guilty, not punished for anything. My clients were distraught by that."

He ruled this year that the current texting-while-driving law precluded a reckless driving conviction against the man prosecutors said opened a text very close to the time he struck and killed Rowley on Route 7 near Dranesville in May 2011. The current law comes with penalties of $20 for a first offense and $50 for a second offense.

When the case went to trial in a Fairfax County court this year, Judge Thomas E. Gallahue ordered the charge against the driver dropped, his texting notwithstanding because of the 2009 Virginia law makes texting while driving a minor traffic infraction.

In Virginia, texting while driving is a secondary offense - police officers can only give a ticket for the violation if they pull a driver over for another reason.

In Maryland, texting while driving became subject to a $500 fine in 2011. Maryland drivers are also not supposed to talk on a handheld phone while driving, but that is considered a secondary offense.

A Virginia bill that would have kept the lower penalties but made texting behind the wheel a primary offense passed the Senate last session, but stalled in the House of Delegates.

T Ailshire December 06, 2012 at 12:55 PM
While it is a good idea to put teeth into those laws that need to be enforceable, which should include ANY distracted-driving infraction, this has the potential to be a feel-good measure that is largely a joke. I'm all for measure that will truly improve the safety of our roads, but don't believe this is it. First, unless a police officer witnesses the behavior, nothing happens. So the idiot weaving over lane lines on US1 while texting or watching his computer screen (oh, wait, that was a police officer) still isn't stopped. But the person reading an e-mail or text while stopped at a 2-minute light could be charged. IF an officer witnesses it and wants to take the time to stop the individual. Reality - the law will only be enforced if it causes a collision (or if a police officer gets run off the road). We already have distracted-driving penalties for that; why not simply strengthen them?
Cynthia December 06, 2012 at 01:10 PM
Why not include women fixing their hair, men shaving while driving, eating a banana, disciplining kids in the back seat, reading the newspaper, etc., etc.? Bad drivers just don't get the message, do they?
Scott Surovell December 06, 2012 at 02:27 PM
Cynthia: Virginia Tech Transportation Institute did a four-year study of 203 tractor trailers driving over 3 millions miles. After correlating behavior inside the cab with driving behavior, they determined that texting while driving increased the risk of an accident by 23x. Other distractions, like the ones you've listed, increase that risk by 1-5x. Texting while driving (or emailing) is in a category all its own in terms of the increased risk it creates. Scott S.
T Ailshire December 06, 2012 at 06:46 PM
Can you provide a link to that survey? I wonder if the driving behavior of tractor-trailer drivers, who tend to drive more highway miles than we in the 44th for example, really mimics what we see here in our Virginia cities.
Scott Surovell December 06, 2012 at 08:06 PM
Given that it was 2003-2007 when the looked at it, I suspect people are even more distracted today. Here's the study: http://opi.mt.gov/PDF/DriverEd/RR/09VTTI_CellPhonesDistraction.pdf http://www.distraction.gov/research/PDF-Files/Driver-Distraction-Commercial-Vehicle-Operations.pdf
Steve Chaconas December 06, 2012 at 08:29 PM
Scott, this is a truly notable accomplishment! Texting at least as bad as other forms of distracted driving, but from what I have seen, much worse! Post accident records will provide evidence of texting with electronic records for a conviction. This would be very objective in providing evidence in a trial. This is a growing issue and nipping it in the bud is commendable! Great job!
T Ailshire December 06, 2012 at 10:19 PM
Thank you! That's some interesting reading. The guy who couldn't be prosecuted though texting while driving (thus reckless by any definition but the law's) illustrates that passing MORE laws isn't necessarily the answer. More laws that are not enforced are no better than the current laws that aren't enforced, and see what unintended consequences arise. If you're simply looking to be able to prosecute *afterward* (which is what your example case implies), another texting law may not be the best solution.
Greg Crider December 07, 2012 at 12:31 AM
Texting while operating a vehicle is reaching epidemic proportions. I'm so glad this is a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by you & Ben Cline (R- Rockbridge), chair of the Police and Public Safety subcommittee. No law is going to address 100% of the issues and no doubt there will be some critics, but this is a necessary step in the right direction. I wish you much success in getting the legislation passed.
J. Griffin Crump December 07, 2012 at 02:57 AM
While I disagree with many of Del. Surovell's political positions, I support him strongly on this one. Texting while driving is like playing Russian roulette with other peoples' lives.
Debra Graves~Alexander December 09, 2012 at 02:29 PM
I strongly support Del. Surovell's proposal. However. in reality, too many people will be injured and/or killed by "Text Drivers" before he and Rep. Cline will gain the necessary support to get this legislation passed. As we all remember it was years and thousands of deaths before our drunk drivers laws were passed and seriously enforced! Prayerfully, we will not need to sacrifice too many valuable lives to get this bill passed!
Lee December 14, 2012 at 04:03 PM
On this I couldn't care either way because it's not going to dissuade those who text from texting. The only purpose it will serve is to apply a secondary offense to any primary offense like reckless driving or even manslaughter. It will be used by crafty DAs to cut deals like, "we'll drop the reckless driving and speeding offenses but you have to accept the texting charge, pay the $2,500 and do 100 hours of community service." That way they get a win, local govt gets an infusion of $2,500 + saves on not housing someone in jail and the perp feels like he got off. This is why there are so many of these little laws...so they can pile them all on and beat you into submission. I'm not familiar with Mr. Surovell's case but it seems odd that the judge would throw out reckless driving, failure to pay full time and attention (that's the charge they give you if you rear end someone's car), and even manslaughter since Kyle was killed. And so now instead we want to get $2,500 from the driver and a year's probation (you know he won't got to jail if he's a first time perp, right?).
Kari Warren December 14, 2012 at 04:17 PM
Totally agree with Steve's comments. I commend you, Scott. This is something that can save many lives.
Kari Warren December 14, 2012 at 04:44 PM
Debra, exactly. Couldn't have said it better!
T Ailshire December 14, 2012 at 05:49 PM
Why not call it like it is? I believe the legislative solution should be this: "If you're distracted driving (to include texting, reading, fiddling with the radio, yelling at the kids, etc.), and you cause the death of another, you are charged with murder." There may be affirmative defenses, but YOU made the CHOICE to operate a deadly vehicle without proper attention. With this solution, you've actually hit the problem instead of pussy-footing around it.
Scott Surovell December 14, 2012 at 05:49 PM
Lee - thanks for the comment. Unfortunately, it's not nearly that simple. I practice both criminal law and personal injury. Currently, someone cannot be stopped for texting while driving unless an officer observes a separate traffic offense. Texting alone is insufficient. In the Jason Gage prosecution, the only evidence presented to the court was that text messages were sent within 15 seconds of a 911 call assuming the clocks were calibrated similarly. There was no evidence of other driving behavior. There were no skid marks. No one who witnessed the collision could remember it. The Supreme Court of Virginia has clearly held that the happening of an accident does not equal reckless driving. The Commonwealth must show some driving behavior beyond a reasonable doubt. Given that the Judge could only find texting, he could not convict of Reckless Driving. This is not the only case where this has happened. I have other colleagues who have obtained Reckless Driving acquittals when the only conduct proven was texting. That is why it was a mistake to enact the secondary offense. Although I wasn't elected at the time, I was told that many of the attorneys in the Chamber pointed this out, but that the balance of members felt that the General Assembly must do something instead of something more carefully crafted. My legislation will enable actual prosecutions.


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