Driving down the highway, you see a car ahead of you swerving dangerously. As you get closer, the reason for the swerving becomes clear: The driver is looking at their cellphone rather than focusing on the road.

Cellphone use has been shown to be one of the most common and dangerous forms of distracted driving, causing serious accidents and deaths. Several states have responded with laws banning handheld use of cellphones while driving, and now Virginia has joined them. On July 8, the governor signed a bill prohibiting drivers from holding a cellphone or other hand-held communications device while driving, with enforcement starting in January 2021.

Why is driver cellphone use so dangerous?

Distracted driving has been recognized as a significant cause of injury and fatality accidents. A distracted driver often cannot react to a changing environment in enough time to prevent an accident.

There are three types of distracted driving, all of which increase crash risk: manual, visual and cognitive. The use of cellphones while driving can combine all three types if the driver is looking at the screen: pulling the driver’s eyes from the road, removing at least one of the driver’s hands from the wheel and pulling the driver’s attention from the task of driving.

The effort to enact laws banning cellphone use while driving started several years ago. Texting while driving has been illegal in Virginia since 2007 and became a primary offense, meaning it is cause for a police officer to pull over a driver, in 2012. But it could be hard to prove and didn’t necessarily apply to other cellphone uses, like playing a game or checking social media.

Virginia’s new law: What you need to know

Virginia joins Washington, D.C., and 24 other states with a hands-free law. Like texting and driving, now any handheld use of a phone will be a primary offense. A first offense carries a fine of $125, while the fine for a second offense is $250. This higher fine also applies to a first offense if the driver is caught in a construction zone.

The law still permits the use of voice command functions like Siri on iPhones and Google Assistant on Androids.

While technically in effect now, police will not start enforcing the law until Jan. 1, 2021. The six-month gap between the signing of the law and its enforcement is intended for public education about the law.

With the passage of this law and public education to follow, you hopefully will see fewer swerving drivers and have a reduced risk of suffering an injury in a distracted driving accident.