The Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday advanced a bill that would expand prohibitions on cellphone use while driving.
The committee advanced a strike and insert amendment for House Bill 2218, which would create the Electronically Distracted Driving Act.
Under the bill, it would be a misdemeanor for drivers to hold a cellphone or another electronic device; read or write emails, text messages and social media interaction; manually enter letters, numbers, or symbols into websites or search engine; watch or record videos, among other things.
Exceptions to the bill include when the vehicle is lawfully parked.
Under the bill, a first conviction is punishable by a fine of not more than $100, a second conviction within a 24-month period by a fine of not more than $200. A third or subsequent conviction of violating the law within 24 months would be punishable by a fine of not more than $350, three points on a driver’s record and suspension of driver’s license for 90 days.
The bill has stiffer penalties for drivers who break the law and cause physical harm to property or to another person. Drivers who violate the law and cause death would be guilty of negligent homicide.
The committee heard from Karrah Ames, of Preston County, whose husband was killed in a distracted driving collision three years ago. The law would be known as the Robin W. Ames Memorial Act.
Ames said her husband was riding his bicycle on a two-lane road when a driver who was checking a weather app on their cellphone struck him from behind, killing him instantly.
“I can’t tell you what it feels like to come home to your two little kids looking at you wondering where their dad is, and you having to say he’s never coming home,” Ames said. “It hurts every day.
“He should be here. My youngest had just turned four two days before his passing and she just turned seven. And I think of all the life that he has missed out on. He loved his life so much and it was prematurely taken by something that was completely preventable,” she said.
Ames said the driver involved did not receive the sentencing that’s described in the bill but instead was sentenced to community service hours.
The bill’s lead sponsor, Delegate Steve Westfall, R-Jackson, told the committee the driver involved in the collision that killed Ames was charged with reckless driving but was not charged otherwise.
“Currently, you heard from Ms. Ames that the person that killed her husband was not charged because they were looking up the weather app. They weren’t texting. They weren’t talking. So he was not charged with anything really other than reckless driving,” Westfall said.
He added that young people “live on their cellphones.”
“I see accidents come in with young drivers and older drivers. I’m an insurance agent had been for 42 years. And a lot of times it’s because of cellphones.”
Adam Holley, counsel for the state Division of Motor Vehicles, testified that violations to the bill would be primary offense. Holley said passing the legislation would make the state eligible for federal grant funding.
The bill is based on model legislation passed in 24 states and Washington, D.C., Jill Rice, president of the West Virginia Insurance Federation, testified.
“Distracted driving through cellphone use has been an issue that has long been on the insurance community’s radar screen for a couple of reasons,” Rice said. “It addresses very specific behavior...there is a direct correlation between the increased use of smartphones and highway fatalities and injuries. So this is a specific behavior that we are trying to limit.”
With some exceptions, Rice said, the bill prohibits drivers surfing Facebook or using weather applications.
“What we are permitted to do under this bill is one touch, swipe and voice activated,” she said. “So we heard a question, Senator, can we still type in a telephone number? We really cannot under this legislation. Because we’re trying to get away and minimize that distraction the level and length of the distraction. But that’s really what this bill does, and it’s based on model legislation. Single touch, swipe and voice activated.”
The House of Delegates passed a version of the bill Feb. 10. The bill next goes to the full Senate for consideration.