Virginia Distracted Driving

Your Guide to Virginia's Distracted Driving Laws

(It's more than just not texting)

Distracted Driving

There are roughly 125,000 car accidents every year in Virginia. And most of these are simple distracted driving mistakes that are completely preventable.

That’s why arguably THE most important thing you can do behind the wheel is keep your hands at 10 and 2 and your eyes on the road. Always.

What Is Distracted Driving?

Distracted driving is engaging in an activity that diverts a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving. There are three main types of distractions:

  • Cognitive: Anything that takes your mind off of driving including daydreaming, going over shopping lists in your mind, or even being lost. This is the most common form of distracted driving. 
  • Manual: Anything that takes your hand or hands off the steering wheel including adjusting temp controls, changing the radio station, or reaching for a pair of sunglasses.
  • Visual: Anything that takes your eyes off the road including looking at action on the side of the road, checking on kids in the backseat, and looking at a GPS.

The most dangerous actions are the one that include more than one type of distraction at the same time, like putting on makeup or thumbing out a text message on your phone.

Most distractions are perfectly legal but they still pose a risk, so they should be kept at a minimum. Laws in the Commonwealth of Virginia are focused primarily on prohibiting text messaging while behind the wheel, leaving other forms of distracted driving unchecked.

Distracted Driving Statistics in Virginia

You don’t have to follow the local news every night to know that distracted driving is a problem, but here are a few statistics that might help you understand just how serious it is in Virginia:

  • Distracted driving is responsible for 18.5% of all crashes in Virginia.
  • In 2018, 24,350 accidents were attributed to distracted driving in this state.
  • Of these, 1,618 involved cell phone use and 183 involved texting.
  • Distracted driving accidents in VA caused 13,733 injuries and 126 deaths in 2018.

Everyone knows that drinking and driving is dangerous. Let’s see how it compares to distracted driving in Virginia

As you can see, although driving under the influence has more deadly results, distracted driving causes many more accidents in this state.

Does Virginia Have Laws against Distracted Driving?

Yes.

Virginia currently prohibits:

  • Reading, writing, and sending text messages or emails
  • The use of handheld cell phones in work zones
  • Commercial drivers and school bus drivers from holding a cell phone and text messaging
  • Drivers under the age of 18 from using cell phones, even in hands-free mode

Are There any Exceptions to Virginia's Distracted Driving Laws?

Yes.

  • Drivers under the age of 18 and commercial vehicle drivers may use a handheld cell phone to report an emergency.
  • Drivers are permitted to use GPS or other navigational systems.
  • Drivers are permitted to use their phones for the purpose of playing music.
  • The following are excepted from the state’s distracted driving laws when engaged in the performance of their official job duties:
    • Law enforcement officers
    • Firefighters
    • Emergency medical service providers
    • Department of Emergency Management employees
    • Office of Emergency Medical Services employees
    • Regional detention center and Department of Corrections vehicle drivers when responding to an emergency

Virginia Distracted Driving Laws at a Glance


            Yes            No
Is Texting while Driving Legal?
                X               
Can You Send/Receive Texts at a Red Light?                X               
Is Hand-held Device Use Permitted?                X * 
Any Special Restriction for Young Drivers?                X                  
Is Headphones/Headset Use Permitted?                     X

* except in active work zones

Is It Legal to Eat a Cheeseburger while Driving in Virginia?

Yes. But that doesn't mean you should.

Distracted driving comes in many forms, and eating a cheeseburger can be just as distracting as talking on a cell phone. Basically, anything that takes your attention away from the primary task of driving presents a potential hazard and should be avoided whenever possible.

So what happens if a police officer in Virginia spots you eating a cheeseburger while driving down the highway? In most cases, nothing. There's no law that says you can't eat while driving in this state.

But even legal distractions (like eating or adjusting the radio) can significantly increase your risk of being in an accident or driving erratically, and these are actions that can earn you a citation.

Unless you're really in a hurry, you’re better off eating your Whopper indoors or in the parking lot.

What's the Difference Between Primary and Secondary Enforcement of Distracted Driving Laws?

Primary enforcement of distracted driving laws means the police can pull you over if they see you violating state distracted driving laws.  

Secondary enforcement of distracted driving laws means police can cite you for violating distracted driving laws only if you break another law while doing so.

Virginia uses both primary and secondary enforcement.

Before 2013, texting while driving was given secondary enforcement. State legislators changed it to primary enforcement in order to give the distracted driving law more teeth. But, enforcement of the handheld cell phone ban for drivers under 18 is only given secondary enforcement.

This means that even if you're in total control of your vehicle while texting, if a police officer sees you doing so, they can pull you over and write you up a citation.

What's the Penalty for Distracted Driving in Virginia?

If you get a ticket for violating Virginia’s distracted driving laws, you can expect:

  • For a first offense: A fine of $125.
  • For a second or subsequent offense: A fine of $250.
  • For commercial drivers: A fine of up to $2,750.
  • For drivers under 18: This is enforced only if another moving violation is committed at the time of the offense. Second and subsequent violations will result in the suspension of driving privileges for up to six months.

Virginia compared to the rest of the US on texting and driving restrictions

States that have laws against texting and driving

Every state in the US has a law that prohibits some sort of cell phone usage except Montana and Arizona. But in 2021, newly enacted cell phone restriction laws will go into effect in Arizona.

Does A Distracted Driving Citation in Virginia Increase Insurance Rates?

Yes.

If you're cited for distracted driving in Virginia, there's a good chance that your insurance carrier will know about the infraction which will almost certainly result in an increase in your insurance premiums.

The amount of your rate hike will depend on which insurance company you use and your overall driving history. In Virginia, distracted driving citations cause rates to go up an average of about $165 a year, so you really have to ask yourself whether that text message is worth it.

And, if you have a Safe Driver Discount, you can probably kiss it goodbye. Distracted driving will almost certainly disqualify you from receiving this discount, and this can cause your rate increase to be even more painful.

What if I Drive into Another State?

Distracted driving laws vary by state, so when you cross that state line you are required to follow their laws. Claiming ignorance of the law will not get you out of a citation, so be sure to check on the current laws for any states you may be traveling through before you take your next road trip.

For example, in nearby Maryland and West Virginia, it's illegal to use handheld cell phones while driving. Does this mean if you're holding a phone to your ear when you cross the border into one of these states you need to end your call immediately? Yes, if you want to avoid risking a $75 or $100 ticket.

What's Virginia Doing to Prevent Distracted Driving?

Over the years, Virginia lawmakers have made several attempts to pass bills banning the use of handheld cell phones in the commonwealth. To date, none have seen success.

Most recently, when the bill banning handheld cell phones in work zones was sent to Governor Ralph Northam for signature, he amended it to make it a state-wide ban. Though the state Senate signed off on this change, it was rejected by the House speaker, and the bill passed as originally written.

It's expected that a new bill will be introduced in 2020 to once again try to pass a law against the use of handheld portable communication devices by drivers.

So What Can You Do?

Quite simply, just put the phone away — even if that means in the glove compartment. The fines themselves are definitely not worth it let alone the more serious consequences to you and others on the road. Let’s all just get where we’re going safely and save the texting until you get home.

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https://www.dmv.virginia.gov/safety/crash_data/crash_facts/crash_facts_18.pdf

https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/46.2-1078.1/

https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/46.2-334.01/

https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/title46.2/chapter3/section46.2-341.20:5/

https://www.dmv.virginia.gov/webdoc/pdf/dmv39f.pdf