By John Patterson
After a string of pedestrian deaths in Loudoun County, students and state lawmakers are getting creative to curb distracted driving before more lives are lost.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) came to Riverside High School on Tuesday, to sign Del. Thomas A. “Tag” Greason’s (R-32) bill into law. HB 1763 allows special license plates with anti-distracted driving messages to be issued at all Virginia DMVs.
Loudoun’s 15 public high schools are among those participating in a statewide competition to design the plate. The student who creates the winning design will receive a monetary prize, and see their artwork on license plates across the commonwealth.
Greason, who lives in Ashburn, specifically chose Riverside High School for the bill signing ceremony because of a tragedy that happened just a few blocks away. On Aug. 31, Tristan Schulz, a 5-month-old baby being pushed in a stroller through a crosswalk by his mother, was struck by a car and died. Part of that investigation has focused on whether the driver was using his phone at the time. Both of Tristan’s parents, Mindy and Rod Schulz, attended Tuesday’s bill signing.
“Some of the Riverside High School kids were on the scene, and tried to actually help Tristan,” Greason said. “Some of the kids who witnessed it were really impacted significantly.”
Riverside students were also instrumental in drafting the bill. Senior Chad Musa, the school’s Student Council Association President, said Greason first pitched the idea at the School Board’s annual legislative breakfast in December.
“Mr. Greason had brought up the idea of figuring out a way to help distracted driving, kind of curb it starting while kids are young,” Musa said. “One thing we thought would be very effective was printing a license plate because…it’s something more noticeable on the road to drivers.”
Greason’s legislation sped through the General Assembly. It was pre-filed Jan. 9 and, in less than a month, passed both the House and Senate unanimously.
“I think this is an easy one for people to visualize the impact it would have,” Greason said. “I think that’s why this one flew out so quickly.”
Now, less than a month before classes end for the year, Musa and his peers witnessed the governor sign their idea into law. McAuliffe signed the bill in Riverside’s library. More than two dozen students attended, most of whom are members of Riverside’s first graduating class.
“Distracted driving is important. In the commonwealth of Virginia last year, we had 13 deaths from distracted driving, 872 injuries—just from distracted driving,” McAuliffe said to the crowd. “I tell my kids all the time put your phones down. Distracted driving is not just about texting. It’s eating while you’re in the car, it’s fidgeting with the radio, it’s not paying attention. Not just young people, everybody.”
Two other bills targeting distracted driving were proposed this session but did not gain enough support to pass. HB 1834 would have closed a loophole to ban the use of mobile apps and not just texting, so penalties would apply to drivers using Facebook, Netflix, and games. HB 1606 would have instituted stricter penalties for distracted driving.
“We’ll come back with those concepts. Try to pass more legislation” Greason said. He also said lawmakers plan to file legislation requiring hands-free phone use while driving next session.
Both Greason and McAuliffe emphasized the empowered role that students had in this legislation, and the prominent role they will have in enacting it. They both have teens who are new drivers.
“It’s awesome. Every chance I get I try to engage them [students] in a conversation, and get their ideas… They got such creative ideas, I’ll take those and then try to make them into something. And that’s really my role, to facilitate,” Greason said.
This is not Greason’s first license plate design project. In 2015, the delegate championed a bill to create Cure Childhood Cancer license plates after Mathias Giordano, a 13-year-old Leesburg resident, died of cancer in December 2014.
“I think this one will be just as successful,” Greason said.
If more than 1,000 of the specialized plates sell, the proceeds can be applied to a cause. Greason plans to work with the Schulz family and students to decide where to donate any proceeds.
The winning license plate design will be available for purchase by July 2018. While drivers typically need to renew specialized and personalized plates annually for a fee, these license plates will only have a one-time fee of $10 more than the normal price of purchasing the plate.
John Patterson is an intern with Loudoun Now. He is studying English and economics at the University of Virginia.