Motorists caught talking on their cellphone or answering their mobile devices' ringtone while behind the wheel can expect to see flashing lights behind them starting this past Monday when a law officially took effect making the use of hand-held cellphones while driving a primary offense in West Virginia.
Local law enforcement officials say they are prepared for the new provision and are asking the public to be cognizant of the traffic law meant to curb distracted driving-related traffic accidents and deaths.
The legislation was created by Senate Bill 211. which was signed into law last year by West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. Talking on cellphones and texting while driving is already illegal. On July 1, 2012, texting while driving was made a primary offense and talking on a hand-held cellphone while driving was made a secondary offense.
The new provision that took effect Monday makes the hand-held use of cellphones a primary offense, meaning that drivers can be pulled over by police if they are caught using a hand-held cellphone, even if they haven't committed any other traffic offenses. The hands-free use of cellphones through Bluetooth devices or voice commands while driving is exempt from the new law, as are law enforcement officers and drivers calling 911 to report an emergency.
Those caught texting or talking behind the wheel face a maximum $100 fine for a first offense, $200 for a second offense and a $300 fine for a third or subsequent offense. Repeat offenders will also see points added to their licenses for multiple infractions.
Jefferson County Sheriff Pete Dougherty said he's confident the new provision will save lives.
"It will work best if the public simply cooperates and does it. There's no question that distracted driving is a hazard, not only to the people who are in the car with the distracted driver, but also for other motorists who are out there," said Dougherty.
He said the law will be helpful even though it may be somewhat difficult to enforce at first. Dougherty said he hopes the new law can be used in a way to help educate motorists about the dangers of distracted driving.
"Our intent in this and most things we do in law enforcement is to try to educate and to inform and to make sure the public does what's needed to be done, so I think out first approach is to make sure that the distracted drivers, if they are being distracted, learn from their mistakes," Dougherty said.
The sheriff said he expects there will probably be a fair number of warnings that will be given out as the new law takes effect and the public adjusts to the new restrictions, but he said egregious offenders, such as those who cause traffic accidents due to distracted driving, can expect to receive citations.
While law enforcement officers are exempt from the new provision, Dougherty said officers are being encouraged not to use cellphones while driving unless it's necessary.
Berkeley County Sheriff Kenneth "Kenny" Lemaster Jr. will be going one step further and said Friday that he will be implementing a department-wide policy requiring officers to use hands-free Bluetooth devices while driving unless an emergency requires the use of a hand-held cellphone.
"In the bill for cellphone usage it is exempt for law enforcement, but, in trying to be fair to the public, they are to use Bluetooths while in their cars. There's always the exception. There's always the emergency type of situation when the Bluetooth might go down and you need to use your cellphone for emergency purposes or a law enforcement-related matter, but primarily I'm putting into effect the policy for officers to use Bluetooths," Lemaster said.
Like Dougherty, Lemaster said it will likely take some time for drivers' old habits of using cellphones while driving to be changed, but said the department is primed to begin enforcing the new provision. Warnings can likely be expected as officers try to educate the public about the new law, but Lemaster said the public has had some time to prepare for the change in the traffic law.
"I'm trying to do the right thing. They've had plenty of warning and notice, but at the same time bad habits are hard to change. I think it is a distraction, I think it is something that needs to be corrected, but it's something that's been going on for a long time and it's going to be hard to change immediately," said Lemaster. "They've had a year to prepare for it. We'll try to use as much discretion at first, but eventually we'll go into zero tolerance after a short period of time."