Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

October 23, 2013

Drivers heeding new laws

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

PRINCETON — State troopers in West Virginia and Virginia are gradually seeing fewer motorists trying to use cell phones or text while driving now that the act is a primary offense in both states.

In July 2012, using a cell phone in any way while driving became a primary offense in West Virginia, said Sgt. J. Centeno of the West Virginia State Police Princeton Detachment. This is referred to as “distracted driver by electronic device.”

“They might be dialing the phone, talking or texting. It doesn’t matter what they’re doing; they’re distracted by an electronic device,” Centeno said.

Centeno did not have statistics at hand, but he said troopers have issued many citations.

“We’ve already cited numerous people, and again it’s a primary offense. Amazingly, we haven’t seen any group of citizens that are predominant. This crosses gender and it doesn’t apply to a certain age group like young people. We have seen a great variety of people and ages,” Centeno said.

It usually takes a year or more for a new law to have a significant impact, he said.

“Preliminary observations are at least indicating that people are paying more attention,” Centeno stated.

In nearby McDowell County, state troopers have seen a decline in cell phone use while driving, said Sgt. C.F. Kane of the Welch detachment. If drivers are seen using a cell phone, troopers will stop them.

“We’ve been writing warning citations to get people to stop using cell phones while driving,” he said. “It’s like breaking old habits.”

A warning does not include a court appearance or court cost. It is “a friendly warning” between state police and citizens and a way to educate citizens about how driving and using a cell phone is now against the law, Kane said.

“People are so used to the convenience and usefulness of cell phones,” he stated. “It’s hard for people to break the habit of using these type of communications devices while they’re operating a vehicle.”

In West Virginia, a first offense for using a cell phone, that is not a hands-free device, while driving is $100. A second offense comes with a $200 fine, and third offense go up to $300. There is a separate charge for texting while operating a commercial vehicle, Kane said.

Hands-free devices are an option. Anyone with questions about cell phones and driving can call 304-436-2101.

Since the act of texting while driving became a primary offense July 1, Virginia State Police troopers have cited several hundred motorists statewide. From July 1 through Sept. 28 this year, troopers have stopped and charged 328 drivers for violating Virginia’s “texting while driving” law, according to a press issued Tuesday by the state police.

 During the 2013 Virginia General Assembly Session, legislators amended Code of Virginia to make texting while driving a primary offense. A violation of this section is a traffic infraction punishable, for the first offense, by a fine of $125 and, for a second or subsequent offense, by a fine of $250. The law applies to the operator of a passenger vehicle in motion and exempts law-enforcement and other first responders, according to the release.

Since the law went into effect, Virginia state troopers have been enforcing it just like any other primary offense, state police officials said. The trooper must observe the illegal conduct of the vehicle’s operator, thus providing the trooper with reasonable suspicion to initiate a traffic stop on that vehicle. Further investigation determines what, if any, offense(s) the driver will be cited for by the trooper. Troopers have the discretion to warn, summons or arrest a violator.

“Keep in mind that this data does not provide an exact account of the problem that exists concerning texting while driving on Virginia’s highways,” said Colonel W. Steven Flaherty, Virginia State Police Superintendent. “Depending on the observation of the investigating trooper, drivers can also be cited for reckless driving and, therefore, not included as a texting-while-driving violation. Regardless, texting while driving puts at risk the driver, passengers and every other motorist, motorcyclist, pedestrian and bicyclist sharing the roadway with that inattentive driver.”

State legislators this past session also established a law that prohibits anyone from texting while driving a commercial vehicle or a vehicle used to transport between nine and 15 passengers. The law does permit “texting when necessary to communicate with law enforcement or other emergency services,” according to state police officials. Another state law prohibits the use of any wireless telecommunications devices by persons driving school buses.