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City Council unanimously passes ordinance prohibiting use of handheld communications devices while driving

At the December 9th meeting of Richmond City Council, the body unanimously passed a ban on driving while using a handheld communications device, proposed by Mayor Stoney’s administration.

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At the December 9th meeting of Richmond City Council, the body unanimously passed a ban on driving while using a handheld communications device, proposed by Mayor Stoney’s administration.

Under the ordinance, using a handheld communications device, such as a cellphone, while driving in the City of Richmond is punishable by a $125 fine on the first offense and a $250 fine for each subsequent offense.

“A holistic Vision Zero plan requires engineering, education, and enforcement,” said Mayor Stoney. “Prohibiting the use of a cellphone while driving is necessary to change both ingrained attitudes and dangerous habits.”

The ordinance, which was introduced at the October 14 council meeting and was recently amended, is an attempt to curb traffic fatalities and promote pedestrian safety. Distracted drivers have killed or injured 218 people in the City of Richmond so far this year, according to the Richmond Police Department.

“As we continue to experience population and density growth, improving the travelling safety of Richmond through creative techniques, legislation and education becomes more and more important,” said Police Chief William Smith. “We are thankful for the Mayor’s leadership in supporting Vision Zero legislative proposals.”

“Keeping drivers’ hands on the wheel, and not handling their phones, means their attention is where it should be – on driving safely,” said Louise Lockett Gordon, Director of Bike Walk RVA. “We are excited to see the city pass a commonsense policy that will help save the lives of people using our streets, especially our most vulnerable people walking and biking.”

The ordinance will go into effect six months after passage to allow for an education period, ensuring drivers are aware of the change in traffic law. The language allows for exceptions for public safety personnel and drivers experiencing emergencies.

With the passage of this ordinance, the City of Richmond joins the City of Hampton and Spotsylvania County as the only localities in Virginia to enact laws targeting driving while using a handheld communications device. A proposed statewide ban failed earlier this year in the General Assembly. The legality of the city ordinance is not contingent on the passage of a statewide ban.

“It’s just not acceptable to use a cellphone while driving when we know the dire consequences,” said Mayor Stoney. “With this ban, Richmond sends a clear message: whether you’re texting or not, put down the phone, or there will be consequences. I hope the General Assembly will send the same message this year.”

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Tethering bill adds new protections for animals kept outside

Animal rights advocates want lawmakers to advance legislation that expands on a tethering bill passed last year by the General Assembly. The new legislation would increase the minimum length of a tether and adds conditions that include temperature, severe weather and require the animal to be brought inside when the owner isn’t home.

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By Ada Romano

Animal rights advocates want lawmakers to advance legislation that expands on a tethering bill passed last year by the General Assembly. The new legislation would increase the minimum length of a tether and adds conditions that include temperature, severe weather and require the animal to be brought inside when the owner isn’t home.

Senate Bill 272, introduced by Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun, would increase the required length of the tether from 10 feet or three times the length of the animal to 15 feet or four times the length of the animal. Under the bill, pets can’t be tied during a heat advisory or if a severe weather warning has been issued, including hurricane, tropical storm or tornado warnings. The bill outlaws tethering in temperatures 32 degrees Fahrenheit or lower or 85 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and when an owner is not home. Last session, a bill expanded the law from a 3-foot tether to 10 feet. That bill, introduced by Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, originally carried the same language as Bell’s current bill, but it was amended by a Senate committee.

Robert Leinberger, animal control supervisor for Richmond Animal Care and Control, said that some parts of the bill may be difficult to enforce. Still, if the legislation gets passed, Leinberger said, it will make a difference because people will be forced to be more aware of the law. He said more people will call to report instances of animals being improperly tethered.

“For example, if it’s inclement weather when it’s really super cold or really super hot, then we do occasionally see more calls for service because of the animals left out,” Leinberger said.

Kate Riviello, a New York-based animal rights activist who also works in Virginia, supports that the bill outlaws outdoor tethering when the temperature is below 32 degrees. Virginia law currently requires that an animal must have access to water, but the water doesn’t make a difference if it freezes, she said.

Riviello also supports “Tommie’s Law,” legislation passed last year that made animal cruelty a felony in Virginia. The law is named after a pit bull that died after he was set on fire. Riviello said she is happy to see the changes Virginia is making to protect the rights of animals but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to continue in the right direction.

“With ‘Tommie’s law,’ I think it was really tremendous that they took that step,” Riviello said. The key also is to enforce animal rights’ laws, Riviello said, which isn’t always the case.

Leinberger said implementing animal rights’ legislation is important because it enables people to better care for their pets. Tethering is just one issue that needs to be addressed, he said.

The bill is awaiting action by the Senate’s Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee.

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Downtown

Bill seeks to ban holding cellphones while driving in Virginia

Current law prohibits reading or typing messages on a personal communications device while driving. However, holding such a device is legal, except while driving in a work zone.

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By Andrew Ringle

Karen Giles was proud of her 30 years as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician, her daughter said, until she was killed last February when a dump truck driver looked down at his phone to text a friend about a Valentine’s Day gift.

Giles’ daughter, Meredith Spies, said she now forgives that driver. But in a press conference on Tuesday, she also said the current sentencing guidelines are not harsh enough.

“We need to put our phones down,” Spies said. “And we need a punishment in place that will take over the need to eat, the need to put on your Chapstick, the need to answer that notification.”

Spies spoke in support of House Bill 874, currently being considered in the Virginia General Assembly. The bill would prohibit holding a handheld personal communications device while driving a motor vehicle.

Current law prohibits reading or typing messages on a personal communications device while driving. However, holding such a device is legal, except while driving in a work zone.

The bill’s sponsor, Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, called the resolve of Spies and others who are pushing for legislation to prevent distracted driving “truly inspiring.”

“Too many people are being affected, being killed, being harmed,” Bourne said. “Families are being tormented by distracted driving and those accidents that result from that.”

Last fall, Richmond City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to ban using mobile devices while driving. A bill hoping to curb distracted driving in the 2019 General Assembly session passed the Senate but failed in the House. If HB 874 can make it out of the House and Senate this session, then a signature from Gov. Ralph Northam would make the same policy statewide law.

“We want to make sure that everyone is safe and that distracted driving goes down rather than up,” Bourne said.

Richmond Police Chief Will Smith said during the press conference that his department supports  HB 874 and that anyone with children shouldn’t be surprised by the proposal.

“One of the very first things that we all talk about with our kids is, ‘make sure that you leave your phone out of your hand and don’t text, don’t call until you get to your destination,’” Smith said. “Yet we, as an adult society, tend not to obey our own advice.”

Smith said there were over 1,000 accidents involving distracted driving in the city last year, up from 950 in 2018. He said the ordinance passed by City Council last year mimics HB 874.

“We see this as a very positive opportunity to improve the safety of our traveling public, those who are pedestrians on our sidewalks and our cyclists in the streets,” Smith said.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said during the press conference that using phones while driving has become an epidemic. It’s currently legal to drive and use a phone to play “Angry Birds, or while browsing the internet,” he noted.

Surovell believes HB 874, now at the hands of the House motor vehicles subcommittee, has a strong chance of becoming law. He thanked Bourne for his support of similar legislation over the past four years.

“While I certainly can’t tell the future,” Bourne said, “I’m very, very confident that at some point in 2020, we’ll all be together again, watching the governor sign this bill into law.”

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Senate advances bill allowing transgender people to change birth certificate

The Senate passed a bill earlier this week that would allow a person who changed their sex to have a new birth certificate issued, something that the transgender community said will help eliminate problems experienced when their legal identification doesn’t match their transition.

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By Rodney Robinson

The Senate passed a bill earlier this week that would allow a person who changed their sex to have a new birth certificate issued, something that the transgender community said will help eliminate problems experienced when their legal identification doesn’t match their transition.

Senate Bill 657 would allow a person to receive a new birth certificate to reflect a change of sex, without the requirement of surgery. The individual seeking a new birth certificate also may list a new name if they provide a certified copy of a court order of the name change.

“I just think it’s important to try to make life easier for people without being discriminated [against] or bullied,” said Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax. “Allowing an individual who is transgender to change their birth certificate without having to go through the full surgery allows them to live the life that they are due to have.”

The bill requires proof from a health care provider that the individual went through “clinically appropriate treatment for gender transition.” The assessment and treatment, according to Boysko’s office, is up to the medical provider. There is not a specific standard approach for an individual’s transition. Treatment could include any of the following: counseling, hormone therapy, sex reassignment surgery, or a patient-specific approach from the medical provider.

A similar process is required to obtain a passport after a change of sex, according to the State Department.

Once the paperwork is complete, it is submitted to the Virginia Department of Health vital records department, Boysko said.

Boysko said her constituents have reported issues when they need to show legal documents in situations like leasing apartments, opening a bank account or applying for jobs.

This is the third year that Boysko has introduced the bill. Neither bill made it out of subcommittee in previous years, but Boysko believes the bill has a better chance of becoming law this year.

“I believe that we have a more open and accepting General Assembly then we’ve had in the past, where people are more comfortable working with the LGBTQ community and have expressed more of an interest in addressing some of these long-overdue changes,” Boysko said.

Vee Lamneck, executive director of Equality Virginia, a group that advocates for LGBTQ equality, said the organization is “really pleased that this bill is moving through.”

“This bill is really important for the transgender community,” Lamneck said. “Right now many transgendered people do not have identity documents … this is really problematic when people apply for jobs or try to open a bank account.”

There are 22 other states in America that have adopted legislation similar to this, including the District of Columbia, Boysko said. The senator said that “it’s time for Virginia to move forward and be the 23rd state.”

The Senate also passed Tuesday Boysko’s bill requiring the Department of Education to develop policies concerning the treatment of transgender students in public elementary and secondary schools, along with bill outlawing conversion therapy with any person under 18 years of age.

The bills now advance to the House, where they must pass before heading to the governor’s desk.

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