CHARLES TOWN — West Virginia drivers accustomed to tapping out text messages and talking on their cells while behind the wheel will soon have to put those habits on hold.
Starting Sunday, motorists in the Mountain State can be given tickets for sending or reading text messages while driving (a primary offense) and talking on a handheld cell-phone (a secondary offense).
Highway signs will give drivers notice of the new law, a change that safety advocates had been pushing for since the 2009 legislative session. All of West Virginia’s neighboring states for years have had in place formal restrictions forbidding drivers from texting.
In March, state lawmakers and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin OK’d Senate Bill No. 211. Tomblin, the Logan County Democrat elected governor last year, has cited statistics showing that texting while driving increases the chance of accidents by 23 percent.
According to law enforcement experts, drivers who text or talk on a hand-held phone when on a road or highway – even when stopped at a red light or in a traffic jam – would be at risk for citation.
According to the new law, exceptions are allowed for drivers facing an emergency who need to contact 911.
Drivers who need to make a call or text or, say, read a directions sent on a phone are encouraged to pull into a parking lot or stop safely along the roadside.
Fines for citations start at $100 plus court fees.
The new law forbids drivers on a public road or highway from texting “or using a wireless communication device without hands-free equipment.”
Many Eastern Panhandle drivers already have curbed their phone habits. After Maryland passed restrictions on cell phone use and text-messaging in 2010, many Panhandle motorists who commute to work in Maryland either giving up phone use in the car or switching to a hands-free device.
But without a formal ban on texting, some drivers may have seen the Mountain State as an anything-goes land where texting and cell phone use were allowed without consequences.
With the change, West Virginia joins 38 other states that ban texting while driving. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, five other states have bans forbidding novice drivers from the practice; Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas have a ban aimed specifically at school bus drivers.
The institute says that talking on a hand-held cellphone while driving is banned in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Washington and D.C.
The use of all cells by new, young drivers is restricted in West Virginia and more than two dozen other states.
The state’s cell restrictions will get even tougher in 2013. Next July, speaking on a handheld cell while driving becomes a primary offense in West Virginia.
Many back new law
Many drivers defend West Virginia’s tougher new law, but one expert says the change isn’t needed.
“It’s an unnecessary, feel-good law,” said Dan Lyons, a Hedgesville resident who has spent his career in law enforcement in Berkeley County.
Even before the new law takes effect, texting or chatting drivers can be cited for creating a safety hazard on the road, he said.
“Reckless Driving, 17C-5-3 of the West Virginia Code already covers willful and wanton disregard of life and property by a driver,” Lyons said. “It’s a primary offense.”
Harpers Ferry resident Joe Anderson said that while he doesn’t text himself,
“People shouldn’t be using their hands for anything but driving,” he said.
Sue Snapp-McGown of Gerrrardstown says she’s pleased that the new restrictions will soon take effect.
“A texting driver drives like a drunk and is just as bad as a person who is DUI,” she said. “As for myself and my family, we want to live.”
Chasity Clower once spent her commute from Hampshire County to Winchester, Va., on her phone, but she’s changed her tune.
“I completely support the ban now,” she said. “I used to be a regular ‘texter and driver’ until my teenager got his license. Now the thought of them texting and driving scares me to death.”
That said, Clower is mindful that chit-chatting on a cell phone is hardly the only way a driver’s attention can be steered away.
“I truly believe that I am way more distracted refereeing my 6- and 12-year-olds in the back seat than I would be with talking on the phone,” joking that she’d like West Virginia lawmakers to next take on the problem of bickering young passengers.
Dean Hockensmith, owner of Dean’s Lawn Mower Shop on Flowing Springs Road, has an idea for drivers who find it tough to break the habit of chatting or texting while behind the wheel.
“If they get caught, they should take the phone, put it on the concrete and step on it.”