RICHMOND — Law enforcement officers in Virginia soon will have an opportunity to learn how to check their own “implicit bias” in stopping motorists to enforce an impending state ban on holding a cellphone or other communications device while driving.
The new law for hands-free cellphone use while driving will take effect Jan. 1, but the first of two training programs will roll out at the end of the week to address the concerns of Black state lawmakers about the potential for racial profiling of drivers in enforcement of the new law.
“As we’ve seen over and over again, sometimes our laws are not enforced in an equitable way,” said Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, a member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus who introduced one of the two pieces of legislation to ban hand-held cellphones while driving.
Gov. Ralph Northam signed the legislation in March. He held a “ceremonial signing” Wednesday to highlight the coming change.
Most new laws take effect July 1. The six-month lag in the law’s effective date allows training of police, sheriff’s deputies and other law officers in enforcing the new prohibition, as well as a public awareness campaign to educate drivers on the law and penalties for breaking it.
“Now that these two pieces of legislation are law, it’s our job to educate folks,” Northam said.
The Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police produced the new online training module for law officers to recognized “implicit bias” in enforcing the law, with funding it redirected from a state highway safety grant with the cooperation of the Department of Motor Vehicles. The association expects the new training module to become available by the end of the week.
“We were very attentive to addressing concerns the Black caucus had about implicit bias and racial profiling,” Dana Schrad, executive director of the association, said Wednesday.
The association also is producing a separate training module for officers on enforcing the ban on hand-held communications devices for drivers, which Schrad said could become available by the end of the summer.
Drive Smart Virginia, a nonprofit organization that advocates for highway safety, will run the public awareness campaign to prepare people for complying with the law, working with the Virginia Secretary of Transportation and the police chiefs association.
Schrad said the association may seek help from the Richmond Police Department in shaping the training program because it will begin enforcing a new city ban on hand-held communication devices for drivers.
The association is basing its training on the enforcement program developed by Daniel Sharp, who retired this year after 40 years as police chief in Oro Valley, Arizona, and is former chairman of the highway safety committee of the International Association of Police Chiefs.
“Anybody who is a certified law enforcement officer in Virginia can take it free of charge,” Schrad said of the online training.
As an incentive, law officers who complete the training on implicit bias, including a testing requirement, will receive a two-hour credit for state-mandated cultural diversity training.
The new law also requires the Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia to make available data collected on all citations issued under the law, including “to the extent available, the relevant demographic characteristics of those persons issued a citation.”
Passage of the law this year capped a legislative battle that began in 2007 to combat distracted driving from cellphone use. The General Assembly passed legislation introduced that year by Sen. George Barker, D- Fairfax, to make cellphone use while driving a secondary traffic offense, meaning law enforcement couldn’t stop drivers just for holding a cellphone.
Subsequent efforts to toughen the law and make it a primary traffic offense have died in the assembly, including a memorable political battle last year. It ended after then-House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, ruled out of order an amendment Northam proposed to a separate bill making it a primary offense to use a hand-held phone while driving in a highway work zone.
“This is a bill that is going to save lives,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, a trial lawyer who sponsored the legislation in the Senate.
Christina Dempsey is painfully aware of the human consequences of distracted driving while using a cellphone. Her sister, Bethany, and 14-year-old niece, Lauren White, were killed, along with the 8-year-old daughter of her sister’s fiance, almost seven years ago when a truck driver slammed into their car while he was checking directions on his phone.
“I see the distraction every day,” said Dempsey, a Fredericksburg resident who works as a paramedic and firefighter at the U.S. Marine Corps. base in Quantico.
She lobbied for the new law in the General Assembly for five years, with help from Bourne, Surovell and Sen. Richard Stuart, R-King George, co-sponsor of the Senate bill, and encouragement from Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland.
“They don’t want anybody else to ever live in our shoes,” Dempsey said at the bill-signing ceremony.