By Evie King
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — For Roxanne Gabel and Tabitha Clark, advocating for “hands-free driving” in Virginia is about more than statistics; it’s a family memorial effort.
In November 2017, Gabel’s 21-year-old daughter, Lakin Ashlyn, was killed in a traffic accident when she was using Snapchat on her phone while driving, Clark, the young woman’s cousin, said at a Wednesday press conference held by the group Drive Smart Virginia.
Distracted by social media while heading to work, Lakin Ashlyn drove off the road and lost control of her vehicle, according to authorities. The young woman was not wearing her seat belt, and when she overcorrected, her car overturned several times. She was ejected and killed, leaving behind her 3-month-old son, who was not in the car.
Roxanne Gabel stood by the podium, tearfully holding the last Snapchat image her daughter took before the accident. Lakin Ashlyn’s eyes were large and round with a set of bear ears and a nose superimposed on her face by a Snapchat filter.
“What she was doing was not illegal. Snapchatting is not illegal, Facebook is not illegal,” said Del. Chris Collins, R-Fredrick. He and Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, are leading a legislative effort to prohibit cellphone use while driving.
Under current law, only texting while driving is a primary offense in Virginia. It can draw a fine of $125 for first offenders and $250 for recurring offenses.
“Traditionally I’ve resisted these [bills], I’ll be honest with you,” Stuart said at the press conference. “But it has come to the point where people are so totally engrossed in their phones that they are almost oblivious to the world around them, and that’s just a really dangerous recipe on a highway.”
The House and Senate bills have bipartisan support: They are co-sponsored by Del. Michael Mullen, D-Newport News, and Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax.
Legislators said the rising number of distracted driving fatalities shows the need for such legislation.
According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, there were 208 distraction-related traffic fatalities last year, an 18 percent increase compared with 2016. During the same time frame, alcohol-related traffic fatalities fell more than 5 percent.
“In some respects, driving with a phone in your hand can be just as dangerous as driving with a .15 blood alcohol level,” Collins said. “When this is something that law enforcement takes seriously and something the courts take seriously, people will change their behavior.”