Hands-Free Phones Bills Dying in Conference Committee — Legislative Update #13, Feb. 24, 2019

Sorry to be missing in action for the last week, but once things started to get confusing regarding the status of our two bills banning hand held cell phones by drivers, I put my communications on Pause until I could get a more definite idea of what was happening.

After both bills (HB1811 & SB1341) passed both Houses by substantial margins such as 73-29 & 34-6 , it really did appear that these bills were heading for the Governor’s desk for his signature.

Unfortunately, up jumped some late in the session amendments. Even though these amendments offered minor, insignificant changes as the senators questioned what was meant by “holding” a personal communication device? Holding cocked between their shoulder and neck? Holding under their chin?, etc. all were discussed.

It was decided to add hold “in his hand” to the language which none of the supporters had any problem with, but ANY changes to the language at this stage meant that both bills had to go into a conference committee to be “conformed” and made identical. Not something anyone except those trying to scuttle the bills wanted.

3 Conferees are designated by the Senate (Stuart, Obenshain & Chafin) and 3 by the House (Collins, Rob Bell, & Bourne) but the Conference Committee doesn’t meet until 2/23, which is scheduled to be Session Adjournment, so I fear that adjournment will take place without the bills being voted on resulting in the dreaded “Left in Committee” verdict as we had received last year.

Not this time, however, as the Session is extended a day, primarily to deal with the Budget, and the Committee comes out with an amended version containing “hold, in his hand” which is not really problematic, but also adding “while physically manipulating the device to view, read, or enter data,” which makes the offense clearly not enforceable by Law Enforcement and therefore meaningless, just as the opponents were trying to do.

That amended version coming out of the Conference Committee sets off a lot of activity, with that report being rejected by the House by 52-40, another Conference Committee being appointed by the House (with the same legislators on it), but the Senate refusing to take any further action on it, so the bill is listed as “Failed to Pass in the Senate” just today, one day after the original scheduled adjournment.

A tough ending to a hard fought campaign (check out SB1341 on the website to get your own copy of the machinations most of us have never seen the likes of previously) which proves how a tiny group of opponents can thwart the wishes of 36 senators and 70 delegates on an issue most feel whose time has come to become part of the Virginia Code.

A big Well Done to Janet Brooking and Drive Smart VA for organizing an excellent campaign that looked like we were going to be breaking out the champagne at the end of, but it wasn’t to be. Also excellent work by Champe Burnley, who rubbed off a lot of shoe leather and kept battling all the way even though he and I both were hit by some kind of bug in the midst of the session, and not feeling that great on that run of gloomy, rainy days.

Two other items of concern to us were added the Budget.  The State is again prevented from acquiring the Dahlgren Trail and the convening of, “…a stakeholder group to assess the feasibility and costs associated with transferring sponsorship and maintenance support responsibilities for the Virginia Capital Trail from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Conservation and Recreation.”

Thus ends a tough State legislative session on a down note! Not sure I’ve got the stomach for another one, but hopeful that we can get the problems resolved next year somehow.

Legislative Update #12, Feb. 15, 2019

With the House having convened at 11:00 a.m. today, shortly after adjournment was much earlier than in the last few days, so Sen. Surovell’s SB1550 “Vulnerable Road User” bill was heard relatively early, but after significant discussion with the Rep of the Commonwealth’s Attorneys Assn in opposition along with SubComm Chair Todd Gilbert, the bill was Passed By Indefinitely along party lines by a 5-2 vote, as Rob Bell, Chris Collins, Les Adams, & Margaret Ransone joined Chairman Gilbert in opposing it, while Delegates Vivian Watts & Mike Mullin supported it.

Not clear at this juncture where we stand officially with the two bills banning hand held cell phones by drivers, but it appears that HB1811 will be dropped and Sen. Stuart’s SB 1341 will go on to be approved on the House Floor and then sent on to the Governor for his signature. I will do another update as soon as I receive official word on the status of these bills.

Legislative Update #11, Feb. 13, 2019

Hadn’t yet heard what caused the lengthy session in the House but it resulted in “shortly after adjournment” being right around 4:00 p.m. for House Courts Sub Comm1, and they didn’t have a quorum then, but Chairman Rob Bell and a undersized committee heard some bills without voting on them with the understanding that they would have to adjourn just prior to 5:30 since they would have to get back to the House Floor by then.

As a result they did hear Sen. Mason’s SB1768, the increased penalty for using a cell phone in a Work Zone bill and they will report it as soon as they have a full sub comm.

Sen. Surovell was told that his SB1550 Vulnerable Road User bill will not be heard until Friday, when the SubComm next meets at shortly after adjournment, so we have another day to contact members of the subcomm in support of the bill.

We look for the two bills banning the use of hand held cell phones to be heard in their respective Courts committees on Friday and next Monday.

Many Thanks to Champe Burnley for hanging in there through a long and fruitless afternoon.

Now with an extra day for constituents to contact committee members in support of SB1550, please do so if you haven’t already.

Legislative Update #10, Feb. 12, 2019

On a rainy morning,Sen. Black’s SB1154 Due Care bill was heard first in House Trans Sub1 shortly after 7:00 a.m. and was Passed by indefinitely by an 8-1 vote , following some comments by Committee members that it was too vague.

After two other bills were heard, Sen. Surovell did a nice job of presenting his SB1550 Vulnerable Road User bill, which Champe Burnley and the representative from Alexandria spoke in favor of, following which it was Reported by a 6-3 vote with a recommendation that it be referred to the Courts of Justice Committee, with only Chairman Garrett, Dels. Thomas & Toscano in opposition. Hopefully it will be handled promptly there as time is running short, but Courts does have more than one meeting scheduled before this session concludes. Its very encouraging that this bill has gotten further than ever before as Sen. Surovell has carried it several times previously, but never gotten it this far.

If your delegate is on the House Courts of Justice Committee, please write or call and ask them to support SB1550, the Vulnerable Road User bill, before they meet Wednesday afternoon (do it now).

Legislative Update #9, Feb. 11, 2019

A really long day in the House meant that half an hour after adjournment turned out to be 4:20 p.m. for the House Courts Sub Comm 1 to begin, so it was about 5 when they got to SB1341 the Senate version of the bill banning the use of hand held Cell Phones by drivers.

With the House version of this bill already being familiar to the SubComm members, there was a question confirming whether this bill was indeed identical to HB1811. When it was noted that it was, there was an immediate “Move to Report” followed by passage by a 6-1 vote, without any further discussion or testimony, with only Del. Gilbert in opposition. The entire process taking only about a minute, the bill now moves on to the full House Courts Committee, which should be Wednesday, half an hour after adjournment, where I expect it to get similar treatment as it sails on to the House floor.

The last bill on today’s docket, SB1768 increasing the penalty for using a handheld personal communication device in a work zone to a class 1 misdemeanor, was not heard until about 6 p.m. With the patron not present, after a little discussion, it was passed by for the day, which means that it should be heard by this SubComm on Wednesday, shortly after adjournment of the House.

Now, tomorrow morning at 7 a.m. we have two bills on the docket in House Trans Sub 1, SB1154, Sen. Black’s bill to require a driver to give his full attention to the operation of his vehicle and exercise due care and decrease speed as necessary to avoid a collision with any person, vehicle or other conveyance and making it a traffic infraction for failure to do so.

A somewhat similar bill, Sen Surovell’s SB1550, is also a due care and vulnerable road user bill, and we will watch with interest to see how both of them do in a SubComm that has not been particularly friendly to our cause.

Support SB1550, the Vulnerable Road User Bill, Today!

SB1550 would make it easier to prosecute drivers who hit cyclists, by making it illegal to operate a vehicle in a distracted or careless manner resulting in injury to cyclists, pedestrians, wheelchair users, scooter riders, and other vulnerable road users.

SB1550 will be up for vote by House Transportation Subcommittee #1 this Tuesday morning, Feb. 12, at 7am. If you’re in any of these delegates’ districts…

…please call or write their office today, and tell them to support SB1550, the Vulnerable Road User bill.

If you’re not sure whether you’re in these delegates’ districts, see the Who’s My Legislator page.

Please try to drum up as much support as you can today, by getting everyone to call or write.

We have a good chance of getting this passed, but we need these delegates’ votes!

Legislative Update #8, Feb. 6, 2019

Apologies for holding back on this for a few hours, as I have been waiting to see if any of our five bills that have survived to Crossover have been assigned to Committees yet, but only two have — SB1154, carried by Sen. Black of Leesburg and SB1768, carried by Sen. Mason of Williamsburg, both of which have been assigned to House Transportation, SubComm1, our favorite venue, probably next Tuesday at 7:00 a.m.

SB1154 is sort of a watered down DUE CARE bill which requires the driver to give full time and attention to the safe operation of the vehicle and exercise due care and decrease speed as necessary to avoid a collision with any person, vehicle or other conveyance, with failure to do so being a traffic infraction.

Sen. Mason’s SB1768 increases the penalty for using a handheld personal communication device in a WORK ZONE to a Class I Misdemeanor

Additionally, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sen. Surovell’s SB1550, the Vulnerable User bill we have been following more closely than these other two bills, also get assigned to House Trans Sub 1, where it could join these other two on the same docket.

The top two bills sailed through the Senate without much in the way of problems, while you might recall that Surovell’s 1550 was the one that initially failed 6-6 in Senate Trans with Sen. DeSteph absent, only to squeak through 7-6 after he asked to have his aye vote counted later.

Although they didn’t receive that much coverage in the media, the two Distracted Driving bills that would ban the use of handheld personal communication devices by drivers House Bill 1811/Collins and Senate Bill1341/Stuart, after both gave us some concern by being Passed by for the day on Monday, were passed by their respective houses comfortably on Tuesday, 69-27 and 34-6 and have not yet been assigned to committees in the other house .

Legislative Update #7, Feb. 1, 2019

HB1811/Del. Collins’ House version of the bill to ban the use of hand held personal Communication devices while operating a vehicle was reported out of the House Courts committee today by a 14-3 vote, with Dels. Carroll Kilgore, Gilbert, and J.L. Campbell in opposition, and Carroll Foy not voting.

The only debate on the bill was caused by Del. Gilbert’s concern that a number of citizens may not have hands free communication capability in their cars for several years so he offered an amendment that would make an exception for drivers with older equipment like flip phones if they were communicating with their phone on their shoulder and not holding it in their hand.

When Del. Collins replied by stating that the purpose of the language in this bill was to make it easier for law enforcement to enforce by keeping exceptions to a minimum, the amendment failed, followed by the vote of 14-3 to report the bill.

We now have HB1811 going on to the full House on either Monday or Tuesday, so its time for everyone to contact their Delegates (check the website if you are not sure who yours is ) at the same time as SB1341, carried by Sen. Stuart is being considered in the Senate, and could use a call or email to your Senator in support, checking the same website if you need to.

Things are looking good for both bills (which at some point will be conformed into one) but we’re not across home plate yet so contact your legislators over the weekend and help keep both of them moving.

Legislative Update #6, Jan. 31, 2019

Not sure my heart can take all this good news at one time, starting with the defeat of the Hilbert-Gray ordinance in Richmond City Council on Monday night by a 6-3 vote with a number of RABA members included in what one account called 65 and another called “over 100” who testified against the proposal which would have permanently barred the installation of bike lanes on about 3.5 miles of Brook Rd. in Richmond’s Northside.

As Champe Burnley noted to me today, it wasn’t that long ago that he and I might have been among only a handful that would have been there to testify, and how heartwarming it was to see how far we have come in expanding the number of people who turned out to express their interest in continuing to expand the city’s bike infrastructure.

Then today, although 15 minutes after the Senate’s adjournment turned out to be not until 4:25, when first we heard Williamsburg’s Sen. Monty Mason present his SB1768, prohibiting and making it a class 1 misdemeanor for a driver to be using a handheld personal communication device in a work zone. Without much debate, it was reported by an 11-4 vote with only Chairman Obenshain, and Sens. McDougle, Chafin, & Sturtevant voting against.

And it was not until about 5:20 before Sen. Stuart’s SB1341 was heard. As is customary, Sen. Stuart, who was acting as Chairman in the Senate Courts Committee, as Sen. Obenshain was out of the room, called all the bills carried by Senators who were not on the Committee first before he asked Sen. Tommy Norment to take over as Chair and stepped down in front to present the bill, which is identical to Del. Chris Collins’ HB1811 prohibiting the use of a handheld personal communication device while driving.

He started by stating that he had voted in opposition to this bill in the past but had now come to realize that so many drivers are doing it that it has become such a serious problem that the time has come for a bill like this to be passed. A Sheriff in uniform from one of the distant counties led off those testifying in favor of the bill, followed by me, Champe Burnley, the Chairman of Drive Smart VA,(who has led the campaign for the passage of a bill like this) and representatives of AAA and several Auto Insurance companies.

After hearing all those testifying, the Committee (most of whom are attorneys in their day jobs) went to work on the language of the bill, with our friend Ryan McDougle from Hanover county starting a debate over what constitutes “held”? Could that be in your pocket? No, pocket would be “on your person” while held generally is interpreted as meaning in your hand. A little more of this lawyer’s debate and wordsmithing, until Sen. Norment had had enough, ruling that “handheld” is clear enough wording to be generally understood, and calling for the vote, which came up on the board shortly with 13 names in Green and only Chafin and Obenshain (who was out of the room, so someone must have been holding his proxy) in Red.

Not unanimous, but having been on the losing end of numerous bills in the 19 sessions I have been coming down here, 13-2 (with my patron plus 6 of the names in green being R’s) was an outstanding result. Too early in the process to be doing high 5’s yet, but this cleared a big hurdle and I think we’ve got a real chance to go all the way. Big Thanks to Janet Brooking and Drive Smart for leading the effort!

Then, at the end of the day, I got word that Sen. Bill DeSteph from Virginia Beach had come through as we had asked him to do and cast the vote he had been absent for last Wednesday in Senate Transportation when we had come out with a 6-6 loss on Sen Surovell’s Vulnerable Road User bill. That result for SB1550 now changes from a 6-6 loss to a 7-5 win and the bill now goes on to the Senate Floor. Also a big win, but one that cost me two bottles of champagne, since I had bet two of our team that the posted result wouldn’t be changed, since it rarely does. Not as hopeful here as I am for the Cell Phone ban bill, since I’m pretty sure it will clear the Senate, and we may get the Vulnerable road use through there also, but after crossover, SB1550 may have to go to House Trans Sub 2, where Chairman Garrett rarely looks favorably on our bike safety bills . This may be an exception, however, so lets keep working and get them both through the Senate and then take it from there.

Now is the time for everyone to call your Senators or send them an email asking them to support both of the bike safety bills SB1341 & SB1550 on the floor when they show up soon and let’s see if we can keep things moving ahead. If you haven’t yet been following along, or don’t know who your legislators are, get acquainted with the website and help get these bills across the finish line

Legislative Update #5, Jan. 29, 2019

Late on the House Trans Sub 1 docket, which started at 7 a.m., Del. Plum from Reston presented HB 2155, which would prohibit a motor vehicle from passing a vehicle stopped at a marked crosswalk. Champe Burnley representing VBF, and I, representing RABA, spoke in favor of the bill, while most of the opposition to it came from SubComm Chair Dr. Scott Garrett of Lynchburg, who has rarely, if ever, supported one of our bike or pedestrian safety bills. Most of his opposition to this bill as unnecessary cited the example of 9th St. right outside the building, which above Bank St. is one way and has 3 lanes going up the hill with many vehicles in the left lane turning left at Grace, while the vehicles in the other two lanes continue straight on up the hill to Broad. With a crosswalk coming from the Capitol grounds across 9th at Grace, all of whose occupants have good sight distance to cars coming up the hill toward them, Del. Garrett saw no need why cars turning left would need to stop for pedestrians coming across the 9th St. crosswalk.

Since this example was in no way related to the problem we were trying to solve where people on the W & OD Trail were crossing 4 lane streets in crosswalks, it was frustrating to me to see Del. Garrett get hung up on it and lead the other R’s on the sub comm to kill the bill by a 6-4 vote along party lines.

With one more bill concluding the docket for the SubComm, we stayed in our seats for the Full House Trans Comm, which followed shortly at 8:30. Early on we heard HB2232, Del. Bagby’s Scooter bill, get stricken from the docket leaving Del. Pilion’s HB2752 as the sole remaining Scooter bill. It quickly became obvious that all interested parties had had several meetings yielding amendments and a substitute bill which we had not yet seen a copy of, but it seemed to be slow enough to take effect that the jurisdictions with pilot projects underway would be able to complete them before passing ordinances governing scooter usage. Whatever its provisions, all interested parties seemed pleased with the bill as it now stands (the Bird & Lime reps grudgingly so) and the Committee voted 22 -0 to send it on to the House floor, where it now should roll right along, and we should soon be able to see what it looks like on the LIS website.

Now tomorrow, we have Virginia Conservation Network’s Lobby Day at 7:30 followed by a Press Conference, and Sen. Stuart’s SB1341 in Senate Courts shortly after the Senate adjourns.