New Driving Laws Impact Motorists in Virginia
Every year, the Virginia assembly enacts laws that impact the safety of motorists and pedestrians This year, new rules include a crackdown on hand-held cellphones and speeding in school and work zones.
The 2020 General Assembly session was historic in bringing sweeping new changes to the highways of the Commonwealth. Although many of the changes are enforced by the criminal law they may also have a bearing on how drivers behave and can affect lawsuits brought in the wake of wrecks with injuries or fatalities.
The new prohibition on holding a cell phone while driving is particularly important for road safety. It replaces a law that banned texting at the wheel but allowed drivers to make calls on hand-held devices.
The new law bans all use of hand-held phones in an attempt to reduce levels of distracted driving in Virginia. Distracted driving is nothing new in our state but the rapid advance in smartphone technology has led to an increase in injuries and deaths.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed this new law in the summer of 2020. Enforcement began on Jan. 1, 2021. Motorists who flout Virginia’s hand-held driving ban face a $125 fine. A second offense carries a $250 fine. Holding an electronic device in a work zone automatically carries a $250 fine.
What is the New Law the Prohibits Handheld Devices While Driving?
The law “prohibits any person from holding a handheld personal communications device while driving a motor vehicle.” It replaced an ineffective law that prohibited drivers from reading any email or text message and manually entering text in a mobile device. Police found the previous law to be challenging to enforce because it was legal to make a phone call on a handheld device. However, motorists could be fined for using a handheld device in a work zone.
The bill signed by Northam expanded the exemptions to include handheld personal communications devices that are being held and “used as an amateur radio or a citizens band radio or for official Department of Transportation or traffic incident management services.”
The legislation was a long overdue recognition that previous laws failed to deal with Virginia’s distracted driving problem. A report from the Virginia Highway Safety Office linked 120 deaths in 2019 to distracted driving as well as 13,258 injuries. DMV figures found about 50 distracted drivers who caused fatal accidents in 2019 were also speeding. This was a 19.5% rise over 2018. Drivers using mobile devices at the wheel caused eight fatal crashes in 2019 in Virginia and 891 injuries. Recent studies have highlighted high levels of distracted driving accidents in four Hampton Roads cities; Virginia Beach, Hampton, Newport News, and Chesapeake.
Distracted drivers are more likely to harm other road users and themselves. They are also more likely to hit pedestrians. In 2019, 120 pedestrians were killed on the roads of Virginia. A recently enacted law in Virginia gave greater protection to pedestrians. Drivers must now stop for people on foot at crosswalks and remain stopped until the pedestrian has passed their lane.
New Law for increased Protections in School and Work Zones
Virginia also enacted legislation intended to increase the protection afforded to children, parents, and administrators in school zones and people in work zones. New legislation allows local law enforcement agencies to use speed photo monitoring equipment in work and school zones. The measure is intended to police drivers who exceed the speed limit by 10 mph or more. Speeding in school zones and work zones is particularly hazardous. People who violate the laws can receive speeding tickets in the mail.
Last year, legislators raised the threshold for a reckless driving charge from driving over 80 mph to driving over 85 mph. The move followed Virginia raising the speed limit on many major highways from 65 mph to 70 mph. Drivers ticketed for reaching speed from 81 mph to 85 mph can still face an additional $100 fine. Drivers clocked at 20 mph or more over a speed limit may still be charged with reckless driving.
The change to the criminal law makes little difference to personal injury lawsuits. Speeding may be a factor in working out who was to blame for a crash, but Virginia car injury lawyers consider a range of factors and all cases are different and unique.
Virginia has also ended the controversial practice of suspending motorists’ driver’s licenses for non-payments of fines or court costs. Legislators felt the law left many Virginians trapped in a spiral of poverty because they were unable to drive to find employment. The law requires the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to reinstate driver’s licenses suspended in past years for the non-payment of fines.
Other New laws Impact Motorists in Virginia
Another recently enacted law allows undocumented immigrants, a group that was previously unable to obtain a Virginia driver’s license due to their inability to show legal residency, to obtain a new driver privilege card.
Virginia legislators have also tightened up the rules governing how and when a motorist can be stopped by the police. During a special legislative session in late 2020, the Virginia Assembly passed a series of laws that restrict the ability of police officers to stop drivers for certain minor traffic violations. Since March 1, officers have no longer been able to stop drivers for violations such as brake and tail lights out, stickers on windshields, and the smell of marijuana. The change does not decriminalize these violations.
The laws governing driving in Virginia change on a regular basis. An attorney can give you up-to-date advice. Please call us if you or a family member has been hurt in a car wreck.