Wanna Kill Someone in Virginia? That’ll Be $20. If You Do It While Texting and Driving.

Posted on September 3, 2012

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The Virginia Assembly has some work to do.

Following up on last week’s distracted driving article:  remember how we said that texting and driving is so very like drunk driving used to be?  Light penalties, if any at all?  Well, my own proud state of Virginia has just given us a vivid illustration of that very problem.  Innocent people are being killed and crippled because an awful lot of drivers out there are too irresponsible to police themselves, and our distracted-driving laws are too weak and stupidly written to police them, either.

As Justin Jouvenal writes in The Washington Post, a fatal case of texting-while-driving was just dropped last month in Fairfax County.  It’s outrageous.  All of the reported evidence indicates that the driver, Jason Gage, was in the midst of texting when he plowed into the back of Kyle Rowley’s stalled car, destroying the car and killing Rowley.  No alcohol.  No speeding.  But also no sign of any attempts to avoid the crash.  No skid marks.  Full speed ahead.  Eyes on the phone, not on the road.  Jason Gage killed Kyle Rowley, and walked away with. no. penalty. at. all.  Gage’s attorney:  “This is a tragic event. Everyone’s hearts go out to the family.”  God.  How many times, decades ago, had I heard similar sad, pious little statements from the attorneys of drunk drivers who had just escaped any serious punishment for killing someone?  Well, it’s nice to know that Mr. Gage can go on about his business, just like all those lethal drunk drivers used to until the 1980s.

The problem is the law, the judge said.  Look to the Virginia Assembly, which passed an anti-texting-while-driving law in 2009.  It must be about the most useless such law in the country.  Because texting is not reckless driving.  It is a minor little $20 infraction.  Did I say the law was useless?  I should have said, harmful.  The problem in this case was that Gage was charged with reckless driving, but  there were no pre-crash witnesses to attest to Gage’s driving.  Maybe he even looked like he was driving fine.  And without something else to point to as evidence of reckless driving – weaving, speeding, crossing the center line – the texting evidence meant precisely nothing.  Apparently, so long as you are in your lane, going the speed limit, and don’t run any stop signs, this is perfectly okay, even if you kill someone.  It was okay for Mr. Gage, anyway.

But Virginia’s texting law is even worse than that.  First of all, a cop can’t stop you if he sees you screwing around with your phone while driving.  He has to wait for you to actually mess up your driving.  And then when he pulls you over, you can just say, “Golly, officer, I wasn’t texting.  I was reading my map.”  See?  You’re allowed to look at your phone for GPS.  But if you’re stupid enough to admit that you were texting, it’s just a $20 fine.   Even if it caused you to obliterate someone’s very existence.

I ask you:   if it’s bad to text and drive, or bad to read an email and drive, then why the hell should it ever be okay to read a map and drive?  As I wrote previously, it was a rare idiot who would drive around with his map open in front of his face in 1980, and he was roundly despised and ridiculed.  But hey, the Virginia Assembly says it’s okay now.  And that’s wrong.

A study by the University of Utah found that texting drivers were twice as likely to crash as drivers with a .08 blood alcohol content.  A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study found that texting could increase the risk of a crash by as much as 23 times.  Other distractions – reaching for things, dialing the phone – increase the risk of a crash by three, four, five times and more.  Quibbling with the exact figures is futile.  The evidence is clear:  distracted drivers kill people.

So here’s what I think the Virginia Assembly should do:  Repeal their useless law against texting while driving, and pass one against distracted driving.  Any distraction.  We’ve got women putting on mascara, people with laptops open on the passenger seat, people reading maps, texts, emails, the morning paper, people eating cereal, and – the most amazing thing I have personally seen – some guy changing his pants while driving.  I think if detectives find any evidence that a driver was not paying full attention to his driving, then the charge should be involuntary manslaughter.  Just like they do for drunk drivers:

  • § 18.2-36.1. Certain conduct punishable as involuntary manslaughter.
  • A. Any person who, as a result of driving under the influence in violation of clause (ii), (iii), or (iv) of § 18.2-266 or any local ordinance substantially similar thereto unintentionally causes the death of another person, shall be guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
  • B. If, in addition, the conduct of the defendant was so gross, wanton and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life, he shall be guilty of aggravated involuntary manslaughter, a felony punishable by a term of imprisonment of not less than one nor more than 20 years, one year of which shall be a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment.
  • C. The provisions of this section shall not preclude prosecution under any other homicide statute. This section shall not preclude any other revocation or suspension required by law. The driver’s license of any person convicted under this section shall be revoked pursuant to subsection B of § 46.2-391.
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