Phone Use While Driving Becomes A Primary Offense

by Travis Crum, Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Starting Monday, drivers who drop a line on West Virginia's roadways may be pulled over and cited under a new law cracking down on cellphone use behind the wheel.

Police say federal grant money would cover officers' salaries to patrol and enforce the ban as it becomes effective.

Using a handheld cellphone to talk while driving is already against the law, but remains a secondary offense until Monday, when it becomes a primary offense. Police can pull drivers over for a primary offense alone.

Last year, texting while driving became a primary offense.

Drivers caught texting or talking behind the wheel face fines of $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second violation and $300 for subsequent offenses. For a third offense, drivers may receive up to three points against their licenses.

On Tuesday, the Kanawha County Sheriff's Department offered a distracted driving course for county employees on the courthouse parking lot.

Participants drove around orange traffic cones in golf carts while sending text messages. In nearly every case, the driver learned that texting while driving is harder than they initially thought, Kanawha Sheriff Johnny Rutherford said.

"It's interesting to watch, especially these young people under 25 years of age," Rutherford said. "Even in these golf carts going speeds of 5 to 10 miles per hour, they look at us and say, 'I can't do this.'"

Rutherford said three or four deputies would begin patrolling the county looking for distracted drivers. They'll also be watching for seatbelt violators and drunk drivers. A grant from the Governor's Highways Safety Association funds the patrols, he said.

Under the coming law, motorists can still call 911 to report accidents and other emergencies with a cellphone. Hands-free or voice-command text messaging also would be allowed.

Recent studies, however, have shown that hands-free phones with Bluetooth capabilities can be just as dangerous as average cellphone use.

The Governor's Highway Safety Association analyzed a decade of crashes and released their findings in April. It concluded that drivers using hands-free headsets spent longer trying to make a call, and had more dialing errors.

The same study found that talking and texting, even hands-free, made the risk of crashing nearly four times greater.

"Our preference is that people wouldn't talk on the phone at all," Rutherford said.

Every sheriff's cruiser has been installed with a Bluetooth device, he said.

Cpl. Brian Humphreys said the distracted driving statistics speak for themselves.

In 2011, 3,331 people were killed nationwide in distracted driving-related crashes, while more than 380,000 were injured.

The Legislature passed Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's distracted-driving bill last year, making West Virginia the 36th state to ban texting while driving.

Kanawha Assessor Sallie Robinson said she was inspired to try out Tuesday's course because, while she was campaigning earlier this year, she saw dozens of distracted drivers from the roadside.

"I would say none of these people can see us because they're too busy looking at their phones," Robinson said.

Reach Travis Crum at [email protected] or 304-348-5163.