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Fatal Crash Shows Virginia’s Anti-Texting Law Needs Updating

There is no question that distracted driving is a major problem, both in Virginia and throughout the United States. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted driving accidents killed 3,000 people and injured another 419,000 in 2010 alone.

The risk of a serious car accident is especially high when a motorist decides to send or read text messages while driving. Indeed, a 2009 study by researchers at Virginia Tech showed that texting while driving makes a driver 23 times more likely to become involved in an accident. That same study found that sending or reviewing a text message diverts a driver's attention for an average of 4.6 seconds. At highway speeds, that is the equivalent of driving blindfolded down the length of a whole football field.

It should come as no surprise, then, that nearly all states have passed laws prohibiting texting while driving. Unfortunately, many of them - including Virginia's - are not nearly as strong as they should be. In some cases, this means that the laws can actually do more harm than good.

Texting Alone Not "Recklessness"

Take, for example, the case of a Virginia college student who was killed in 2011. He was pushing his car to the side of the road - it had run out of gas - when he was struck and killed by another driver. Evidence later revealed that the driver had opened several text messages in the moments before the fatal car accident.

The driver was charged with reckless driving, but a judge ended up having to drop the charge, largely because Virginia's texting law is so lax.

Although texting while driving is illegal in Virginia, it is only a "secondary offense." This means that drivers cannot be pulled over for texting unless they are caught breaking another traffic law, like speeding or not staying in their own lane. The law deems texting while driving a minor infraction, punishable only by a $20 fine. As a result, texting alone is not sufficient to support a charge of reckless driving.

The charge might have stuck had the legislature not drafted the anti-texting law so narrowly. In fact, the judge in the case went so far as to say that although he believed the defendant was driving recklessly, his hands were tied by the statute.

Now, a coalition of traffic safety advocates - including local county attorneys and the parents of the young man who was killed - are pushing the Virginia General Assembly to adopt stricter prohibitions on texting while driving. At least one delegate has already promised to introduce a bill classifying texting that leads to an accident as "reckless driving."

Virginia Car Accident Lawsuits

Of course, it is important to remember that criminal charges are not the only way to hold a driver accountable after a texting accident. Whenever an accident is caused by another driver's negligence, injured victims can seek financial compensation in a personal injury lawsuit. When victims are killed, their families can sue the negligent driver for wrongful death.

If you or a loved one has been hurt in an accident caused by a negligent or distracted driver, a Virginia personal injury attorney can help you understand your rights.

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