Back in the 1990s, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles sponsored a couple license-plate design contests for high schoolers.
One contest was to portray the state’s natural beauty. That resulted in a tag with an autumn-leaf border. The other asked for depictions of Virginia history. The winner’s design included an image of a Revolutionary War soldier. Those remain among the most popular of 200 different themes on special plates the agency offers.
Now the DMV is turning to a far more serious subject for a new specialty license tag, one that’s also arguably more abstract. The issue is distracted driving, which kills or injures hundreds of people in Virginia each year. The agency has commissioned another contest, open to all Virginia high school students, for a plate that will emphasize the dangers of distractions behind the wheel.
The winner of the “Take Action Against Distraction” license plate design contest will get a $1,000 cash prize. The new tags will cost motor vehicle owners a one-time fee of $10.
“We are excited about this contest and look forward to seeing the creative designs we receive from students,” DMV Commissioner Richard Holcomb said in a news release announcing the competition. “But more importantly, we’re excited the contest will get high school students throughout Virginia talking about this issue. It’s about raising awareness of distracted driving, discouraging distracted driving, and most importantly, it’s about saving lives.”
Last year, the DMV said, 13 Virginians were killed and more than 800 were injured in accidents in involving a teenage distracted driver, and even more died or were injured if you add in distracted adults. The total for the state last year was 176 fatalities and 15,173 injuries that were related to distracted driving, said Brandy Brubaker, a DMV spokeswoman.
In August 2016, a 5-month-old Loudon County boy was killed inside a crosswalk where a car struck him as his mother pushed him in a stroller. According to news reports, the driver was a man looking at his cellphone.
That spurred Del. Tag Greason, R-Loudon County, to sponsor legislation in the 2017 Virginia General Assembly creating the contest. Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed it into law May 16 in a ceremony at a high school near Leesburg. On Monday, Greason was unavailable for comment.
There are all sorts of different distractions that lead to drivers taking their eyes off the road, Brubaker said. Texting is one — and that’s illegal for any driver in Virginia. Cellphones are another.
Unlike some neighboring states, such as West Virginia and Maryland, drivers 18 and older in Virginia are allowed to use handheld cellphones while driving. Drivers younger than 18 are prohibited from using any kind of wireless communications device while operating a motor vehicle. That includes hands-free cellphones.
Other distractions Brubaker cited included passengers, rubbernecking at accident scenes or fiddling with a radio or music player.
“Passengers are a particularly dangerous distraction for teen drivers, which is why the law sets restrictions on non-familial passengers for new teen drivers,” Brubaker told me.
Virginia could do more about distracted driving. Although texting is banned, it’s still legal for adult drivers in Virginia to make or answer phone calls on hand-held phones while driving, or to enter addresses on a global positioning system. Technically, adult drivers are allowed to watch YouTube videos on their phones while driving.
A bipartisan group of state lawmakers, including Del. Rich Anderson, R-Prince William, and Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, have tried in vain for years to limit all drivers from using hand-held communications devices. Although Anderson won passage of the texting ban in 2014, other attempts have failed.
According the National Conference of State Legislators, 15 states plus the District of Columbia have such prohibitions in place. So do Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
But, hey, a consciousness-raising campaign on the dangers of distracted driving can’t hurt.
The contest is open to all Virginia students in grades 9-12, whether they attend public, private or parochial schools or are homeschooled. Entries must be submitted to dmvNOW.com/vaplatecontest no later than Dec. 15.
A panel of judges will winnow the entries down to eight designs, which will be subject to a public online vote between Feb. 20 and March 20. The winner will be announced in April, Brubaker said. Finalists will get $300 each, Brubaker said, and the winner of the public vote will get $1,000.
I would caution entrants not to make their designs too eye-catching. You don’t want to create another distraction!
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!