Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles about traffic accidents in Henrico County.
Distracted driving has caused more than 2,200 accidents in Henrico County during the past three years, according to crash data for the county.
“I think that from an educational perspective what down the road we really have to do is change the social norm, so we have to make driving the No. 1 and only thing someone is focused on when they’re behind the wheel,” said DRIVE SMART Virginia Executive Director Janet Brooking.
Of the nearly 500 distracted-driving accidents that have occurred this year in the county, the most in a single area have been the 50 reported generally along the West Broad Street corridor in Short Pump, west of I-295.
Mobile phone usage has been identified as a high-risk behavior while driving and is being targeted at a state level with the passage of a law that took effect Jan. 1. That law makes it illegal to hold a handheld personal communications device (such as a smartphone) while driving on Virginia roads, including utilizing the device to dial a phone number, send a text message or browse social media.
A driver who violates this law is subject to a fine of $125 for the first offense and $250 for the second offense. A driver who is convicted of reckless driving while violating the law when committing the offense can be fined a minimum of $2,500, with up to 12 months in jail and a six-month license suspension.
The Henrico Division of Police has seen an increase in the number of citations issued following the passage of the law, according to Henrico Police Lt. Robert Netherland, III.
“The hands-free law has helped a lot for enforcement purposes to allow officers to actually be able to stop people that are on their cell phones because that’s primarily the biggest distraction,” he said.
The nonprofit DRIVE SMART Virginia, which strives to prevent traffic fatalities and injuries, began a campaign in response to the new law titled “Phone Down. It’s the Law.” to encourage drivers to remain handsfree while operating a moving motor vehicle, Brooking said.
There are five exceptions to the law; those apply to the operator of an emergency vehicle who is performing on duty; a driver who is lawfully parked or stopped; a driver who is reporting an emergency; a driver who is using an amateur or citizens’ band radio; and the operator of any Department of Transportation vehicle during the performance of a traffic incident management services.
Although distracted driving has been a problem for years, organizations like the American Automobile Association are still trying to help people take the necessary steps to minimize it, AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesperson Morgan Dean said.
“We still have a long way to go to help people understand just how dangerous it is to be impaired and get behind the wheel, how dangerous that phone can be as a distraction, how dangerous it is to speed and how dangerous it is to not have your seatbelt on and have seatbelts on every single person in your car, every single time you pull out of your driveway or your parking spot,” Dean said.