Motorists in the District who are convicted of causing a crash while texting may soon be fined thousands, face jail time or both if the wreck resulted in substantial bodily harm or death.
The D.C. Council unanimously approved Tuesday, Nov. 1 an amended distracted driving bill that treats texting behind the wheel like drunk driving.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson initially introduced the Enhanced Penalties for Distracted Driving Amendment Act in early 2015, and recently offered it once more for consideration.
“This amendment would treat penalties for accidents caused by texting and app usage that result in substantial harm to a person or property the same as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs,” read a statement from Mendelson’s office. “Texting and using applications on mobile telephones or other electronic devices while driving is just as dangerous as driving under the influence. This amendment seeks to deter such behavior.”
Under the anti-texting amendment, the penalties include $1,000 fines and up to 180 days in jail.
If signed into law by Mayor Muriel Bowser, D.C. would join Alaska, Illinois, New Jersey, Utah and Maryland in imposing enhanced penalties for the crime of causing a fatality when texting while driving.
Mendelson modeled his amendment after Maryland’s “Jake’s Law” that went into effect on Oct. 1, 2014.
Named after Jake Owen, a 5-year-old killed by a driver talking on his cellphone, Maryland’s law makes crashes caused by distracted driving that results in a serious injury or death a misdemeanor with up to one year of jail time and up to a $5,000 fine.
“The threat of a hefty fine and the prospect of incarceration could be enough to wean some drivers from their electronic devices and to modify the reckless driving behavior of other drivers,” said John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s manager of public and government affairs. “The measure addresses a pandemic problem on area roads: dangerous distracted driving and it targets drivers who text and drive behind the wheel. How widespread is it? Consider this: more than a third — 42.3 percent — of drivers surveyed nationally confessed to reading a text or email while driving in the past 30 days.”
The bill proposed a “three strikes and you’re out” distracted-driving law mandating escalating fines for repeat violators, and the eventual suspension of the driver’s license after a third related conviction within an 18-month period.
That clause could also affect motorists who are licensed in Maryland and Virginia and other jurisdictions. Any suspension of driving privileges in the District will likely be reported to Maryland and Virginia because both states, like the District, are members of the Driver’s License Compact (DLC) and the Non-Resident Violator Compact (NRVC).
“Neither Maryland nor Virginia has a statute on the books that suspends the driver’s license after a third conviction on a distracted driving ticket,” AAA Mid-Atlantic said in a statement. “In other words, there is no similar ‘three-strike’ distracted driving offense in Maryland or Virginia stemming from a charge of talking on a hand-held electronic device or texting while driving.”