Virginia County Goes After Distracted Drivers Who Text

Yes, it’s illegal to text while driving in Virginia, just as it is in 29 other states. And yes, police see the same things on the roads that all motorists see: distracted drivers paying more attention to their cell phones than the road.

But when it comes to enforcing the law, police in Fairfax County have found the state’s new texting-while-driving law to be virtually unenforceable. For example, texting is illegal but dialing a phone number is not, and it’s hard for an officer to know the difference.

So as the state’s largest county kicks off a major enforcement targeting texting while driving and other forms of distracted driving, the county is relying on other laws as opposed to the state’s year-old law that explicitly makes texting while driving a crime.

“It’s a very difficult law for us to enforce because there are loopholes in that law,” said Capt. Susan Culin, commander of the county police’s traffic division.

In fact, in all of 2010, Fairfax County police have issued 16 tickets for texting while driving in a county of more than 1 million residents who spend in inordinate amount of time sitting in traffic.

Not only is it difficult to distinguish between illegal texting and legal dialing, but the fine is $20 for a first offense. And Virginia is one of four states that made texting while driving a secondary offense, meaning police can only enforce the law if they also witness some other violation first.

Instead, police are turning to an older law: failure to pay full time and attention to driving. The citation carries a slightly higher fine — $30 — but it lends itself not only to texting while driving but also any number of common distracted driving issues.

While it is not explicitly illegal to, say, eat a sandwich while driving, Culin said officers will be looking to match those behaviors inside the car with bad driving behaviors, like erratic braking or weaving.

Officers will use unconventional vehicles during the monthslong enforcement campaign, including trucks and SUVs that sit up higher so the officer has a better vantage point to see what a driver is doing inside his car, Culin said.

It is not only Fairfax County that has trouble enforcing texting-while-driving laws. Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety officials, said officers across the country struggle to distinguish between legal dialing and illegal texting. Pilot projects are under way in a few states to determine the best enforcement methods.

He said Virginia’s law is particularly weak because it only allows for secondary enforcement.

While difficult to enforce, he said the laws are a step in the right direction because they raise awareness and because a certain number of people will change their behavior to be in compliance with the law, even if it is rarely enforced.

He said the best solution appears to be use of well-publicized enforcement campaigns, in which the public is warned that extra officers will be posted to enforce a particular law.

That is what police in Fairfax are doing, kicking off a media campaign highlighting its enforcement efforts by inviting reporters to drive on an enclosed track at the police training center while simultaneously trying to read directions, change radio stations, and talk or text on a cell phone.

When confronted with multiple distractions, the drivers at Friday’s media session either slowed to a crawl — which itself is a dangerous behavior on some roads — or they invariably started clipping the orange cones that they had successfully avoided when they drove the track without distractions.

“The results are as we would expect: They’re taking out more cones,” Culin said.