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Texting while driving law and Virginia legislature criticized by Fairfax judge

September 4, 2012 | Virginia News

It's not the first time Virginia's texting-while-driving law has been criticized. In 2010, Fairfax police turned to an older law to tackle distracted driving when they became frustrated with enforcing the texting ban.

The problem: The law bans texting and looking at e-mails but allows drivers to use a phone-based GPS device. A driver can simply tell an officer that he or she was doing the permitted activity to beat a ticket.

The Washington Post

One night in May 2011, Jason Gage, an Alexandria man driving on a road in the Dranesville community of Fairfax County, struck and killed a college student named Kyle Rowley.

Authorities later determined that Gage had probably opened a text message about the time of the crash. They charged him with reckless driving.

But when the case went to trial in a Fairfax County court last month, Judge Thomas E. Gallahue ordered the charge against Gage dropped, his texting notwithstanding.

The reason: A 2009 Virginia law makes texting while driving a minor traffic infraction punishable by a maximum fine of $20, so texting alone could not be proof of reckless driving.

Gallahue, in an unusual move from the bench, left no doubt where he thought the problem resided: Virginia’s General Assembly.

“I think you are driving recklessly,” Gallahue said, according to a trial transcript, “but the legislature has said texting is something way less than that.”

The outcome stunned Rowley’s parents and prompted them to call for a change in Virginia law so a similar situation is not repeated. The call has also been picked up by a local lawmaker and Fairfax’s top prosecutor, who said the case was likely the first of its kind before a Virginia court.

Their concerns come as lawmakers across the country are pushing to strengthen distracted driving laws as research mounts showing just how dangerous activities such as texting behind the wheel are. One Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study found that texting drivers are 23 times more likely to crash.

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