Virginia laws to protect pedestrians from distracted drivers aren't being used, officials say

An average of 2.7 people are killed in traffic crashes every day in Virginia. Pedestrian and bicycle accidents are on the rise, and lawmakers have made it easier to go after distracted driving, but the laws are not getting used.

In 2020, Virginia lawmakers passed a law to protect pedestrians and bikers on the road. The law makes it easier to prosecute distracted drivers who injure or kill vulnerable people on the road.

Distracted driving doesn't just mean being on your phone. It's anything you do to take your eyes off the road from eating to talking to someone else in the car.

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Since the law took effect in July 2020, pedestrian fatalities went up nearly 10% in Virginia, but only one person has been convicted under the new law.

"When a pedestrian or cyclist comes into contact with a 2 to 10-ton metal box at some rate of speed, they often end up being concussed or dead, and they can't remember what happened, and they can't testify to what happened, and the driver often says I didn't see them," says Virginia Sen. Scott Surovell.

The Vulnerable Road User Law was passed to lower the burden of proof and make it easier to charge distracted driving. If you seriously injure a pedestrian or cyclist while driving carelessly, you can face up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine.

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But according to the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, there have been only 14 charges under the law and just one conviction. There have been five charges in Fairfax County, one in Prince William County and none in Loudoun County.

Surovell says part of the problem is police, prosecutors and judges who aren't up to speed on the new law and need training. 

The Virginia Association for Chiefs of Police agreed the law didn't get as much attention as it should have when it went into effect during the pandemic. Now, they plan on including it going forward.

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"We will include this now going forward to make sure out officers know it is an available statute," says Executive Director of Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police Dana Schrad. "It's also something that our academy directors should be aware of when they do basic training for our new officers coming on so that they understand this is a new statute they can charge under."