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Holding a phone while driving will soon be illegal in Virginia: ‘Constituents are demanding it’

RICHMOND, Va. -- Driving with a cell phone in your hand will soon become illegal in Virginia.

Lawmakers in both the House of Delegates and Virginia State Senate have passed hands-free driving bills.

Del. Chris Collins (R - Winchester) and Sen. Richard Stuart (R - Montross) sponsored the bills that expand "the prohibition on using a handheld personal communications device while operating a motor vehicle to all uses unless the device is specifically designed to allow hands-free and voice operation and the device is being used in that manner."

Drivers who break the law could be pulled over and issued a ticket ($125 on the first offense, $250 on the second).

Under current Virginia law, texting or writing an email while driving was illegal; however, police agencies said it was difficult to enforce.

"The current law requires the officer to be almost as distracted as the person who is texting in order to enforce that law because you have to drive down the road and watch the digits or numerics being entered," Ashland Police Chief Doug Goodman said.

Under the new law, just holding a phone in your hand while driving would be outlawed.

Drivers would be allowed to talk on speaker while placing their phones elsewhere in the vehicle, lawmakers said.

Last year, a similar Senate bill failed in committee.

CBS 6 Political Analyst Dr. Bob Holsworth said constituents are putting increasing pressure on their representatives.

"For many years people thought that it was almost a right, in that it was wrong to take away their personal freedom -- that would be the nanny state coming in," Holsworth explained.

He added, "times are changing and evolving pretty quickly on this whole issue of driving while holding a cell phone."

Lawmakers are hearing stories like Lakin Ashlyn.

Lakin Ashlyn's mother held the last picture of her daughter: a Snapchat photo taken seconds before she flipped her car and died near West Point, Virginia in November 2017.

Ashlyn's family has joined a coalition of lawmakers and law enforcement pushing to pass a hands-free driving bill during the 2019 Virginia General Assembly Session.

"I used to be on my phone all the time," Lakin's cousin Tabitha Clark said. "You’re being selfish if you are on your phone and doing whatever, but just driving."

The bill would need the governor's signature before becoming law in January 2020.

Virginia saw a 10.8 percent increase in traffic fatalities in 2017, according the Virginia DMV, and traffic deaths have increased every year since 2013.

Advocates said in 13 states the enacted hands free laws, the number of traffic fatalities saw an average decrease of 16 percent within two years.

This is a developing story.

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