It was a cool November evening when I saw an Alexandria City Public Schools official engaging in potentially dangerous activity. I remember it clearly. My friends and I had decided to go shopping after school. On the ride back, with tired feet and empty wallets, the four of us joined the mass of commuters making their way home through the sluggish evening rush hour. We reached the busy intersection of Quaker Lane, Braddock Road, and King Street. The group was pretty quiet as we sat at the red light, until someone looked outside and saw who was in the car directly to our right.
Through my passenger-side window, merely feet away from where I sat, I saw a real live ACPS employee. We stared in awe, almost in disbelief that such a person existed outside the world of textbook budgets and school board meetings. It must have been a funny sight – four teenage girls gawking, slack-jawed, at something as normal as a person driving a car. Somebody joked, “How awkward would it be if they just looked over here right now?” We all agreed to stop our rubbernecking, but obviously continued to sneak quick looks. Then, one of us noticed that something was a little off. The driver was not looking forward, but rather directing his or her full attention downwards.
“Wait. Is [he or she]… texting?”
We immediately resumed our staring. It was true! This important, respected Alexandrian was holding up a phone, with his or her hands at the wheel. Then, even after the light changed and his or her car was in motion, the phone stayed up, and the official’s attention was still not fully directed at the most important task at hand – driving.
Our car buzzed with excitement. We considered taking a photo, but no one had a camera. Plus, we were way too scared of being seen. We began to wonder – isn’t texting and driving illegal in Virginia?
The answer is “yes.” And not only is it illegal, but incredibly unsafe. According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, in 2008 alone there were 28,395 crashes involving distracted drivers. Of those crashes, 114 people were killed. In response to the dangerous and growing trend of cell phone use while driving, Virginia banned texting and emailing while behind the wheel. The law went into effect on July 1, 2009.
The law is very specific. Drivers are forbidden from manually entering letters or text into phones for communication, as well as reading email or texts. The only exceptions are for drivers of emergency vehicles, the use of GPS navigators, when reporting an emergency, or when the vehicle is lawfully parked or stopped. The consequence for violating the law the first time is a $20 fine. If it ever happens again the price jumps to $50.
However, not many people are caught breaking this law. This is because it is considered a “secondary offense,” – an officer must have grounds to stop or arrest the driver for disobeying another law to issue a citation for the use of handheld person communication devices in a motor vehicle. Nevertheless, Maryland and Washington, D.C. have primary enforcement on texting bans, which means that officers do not need another reason to pull a driver over.
Moreover, whether the law has primary or secondary enforcement, whether it is punishable with a fine or a jail sentence – illegal is illegal. The details hardly matter. The Virginia legislature has deemed texting behind the wheel unlawful, so anyone driving in Virginia is prohibited from doing it. This includes everyone, from busy soccer moms and stressed commuters to chatty teenagers and, yes, even leaders in the local community.
The fact that this person is a prominent figure in Alexandria should be even more reason for him or her to adhere to rules and restrictions. City leaders should hold themselves to even higher standards, because citizens depend on them and look up to them. If a T.C. student sees an adult – specifically one who has authority over them and an important role in the area – ignoring a law, then there is no way of knowing that the student won’t say, “If they don’t have to respect the rules, neither do I.”
I have always been taught how important automobile safety is, both at home and in ACPS classrooms – I spent months in Driver Education, in an Alexandria public school no less, learning about every possible way to be safe on the road. If I look over and see someone doing something like this in the vehicle one lane over, I think, “That’s stupid, though not unusual.” Then, I do what I can to stay away from the dangerous driver – I’m not trying to dent my parents’ car. In this situation I thought, “That’s stupid,” and, “Why is this person responsible for decisions that affect my education and my future?”
When informed that four witnesses had seen him or her texting while operating a motor vehicle and asked for comment, the official said, “I think it’s highly unlikely. Maybe someone was calling and I was looking down at my phone to see who was it was.” Of course, there is no way of knowing for sure unless we were sitting in the passenger seat beside him or her – how does one tell the difference between checking an email and checking a call from the next car over?
The official confirmed that he or she was traveling between meetings that evening, that he or she did go through the intersection of Quaker, Braddock, and King, and that he or she arrived at his or her destination shortly after the time we reported our sighting.
This is in no way an attack on ACPS and its employees. I know they are important people – and important people have important things to do. This particular employee was undoubtedly busy taking care of things that may even have been for my benefit as a T.C. student. However, if this particular text or email was that important, he or she should have at least waited until the car was stopped again to resume working.
Even texting at the wheel of a vehicle stopped at a red light is not a safe activity. “There is no call, no text message too important it can’t wait until you get to your destination,” says Ray LaHood, United States Secretary of Transportation, who tells drivers to “put their cell phones in the glove compartment.”
It’s simply a word of warning: if you are a public figure, nearly everywhere you go there will be someone watching – and it’s up to you, ACPS officials, to set a good example for everyone else to follow. LaHood says, “Taking personal responsibility is the key to all of this.” Because if a city leader does not seem to think that safety is important, why should anyone else?