Jan. 16, 2019 - A new Hampton law gives police the ability to add an extra penalty when bad driving is caused by drivers who are distracted by the cell phones in their hands.
Hampton City Council passed the law Jan. 9, which means that anyone driving on city streets while using a handheld device that causes their attention to be diverted would be guilty of distracted driving and face a $125 fine.
Earlier that same day, Police Chief Terry Sult stopped a driver who ran a stop sign while looking down at her cell phone. Had it happened a few hours later, she could have been charged under the new ordinance as well as with running the stop sign, he noted. “It’s a not a silver bullet, but it is a very useful tool toward protecting the driving and walking public.”
While the new law allows officers to write more tickets and collect more fines, that’s not the goal. Hampton officials are hoping the threat of an additional fine will give drivers one more reason to put down their phones and give driving their full attention.
There are exceptions, including drivers of emergency vehicles, drivers who are lawfully stopped or parked, those using the device to report an emergency, or those using a handheld radio-based device during an emergency or disaster relief.
Seventeen states require drivers to use hands-free devices. Virginia does not. Efforts in the General Assembly to tighten that law and require drivers to put down cell phones and use them hands-free failed in 2018. The legislature does give localities broad authority (Virginia Code section 46.2-1300) to enact ordinances that regulate driving on their own streets.
That’s why Hampton’s distracted driver law can be broader than the general law applicable to drivers throughout the state, which only prohibits reading or writing emails, text messages or other communications.
According to Hampton police, under the state law, if an officer saw someone who was swerving, pulled up next to them and saw they were holding their phone, the officer would typically have to get a warrant for the contents of the phone to prove the driver was typing or reading a communication in order to be successful in court.
The city’s new law covers phone use on a broader scope – dialing a phone (unless it was one of the emergency exemptions), watching a film, checking social media, scrolling, playing a game, or any other cell phone use that would distract a driver and keep one hand off the wheel. The officer’s observance of the phone use, as well as observation of a driving issue, would be sufficient for issuing a ticket.
Violations of the city’s distracted driving law would draw a $125 fine on the first offense and a $250 fine on subsequent offenses. It is one more tool that police have for charging drivers who don’t follow laws and risk the safety of others.