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State Police target texting/distracted driving

SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia State Police and other police agencies around the state are getting ready to crack down on texting while driving and other distracted driving practices.

Sgt. Chris Zerkle, director of traffic records for the State Police, said the state recently got a federal grant of $168,000 to target distracted drivers. The money will be used to pay troopers and other officers overtime to look for those who are driving while distracted.

Zerkle said officials for the National Highway Safety Administration collected data and created a list of the 100 most accident-prone stretches of roadway in the state. Although based on DUI arrests and deaths, State Police are guessing the same stretches of road are equally dangerous for drivers who are texting or talking on their cellphones. Some studies suggest that texting and cellphone use while driving are just as deadly as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

State Police spokesman Sgt. Michael Baylous said the program has been dubbed Operation Chain Reaction. "Our goal is to start a chain reaction and eliminate distraction," said Baylous.

According to Zerkle, 21 counties with the most dangerous stretches of road will each get $8,000 through the federal grant.

State Police said distracted driving is usually thought of as texting or talking on a cellphone, but can be anything that takes a driver's attention away from the road. Baylous said he has seen people shaving, putting on makeup, reading the newspaper and even eating a bowl of chili while driving down the road.

Zerkle said trying to operate a GPS device or other electronic device that is not hands-free can also be considered distracted driving under the law.

Last year, the Legislature made texting and driving a primary offense, meaning drivers can be pulled over and ticketed if seen texting and driving. On July 1, talking on a cellphone or using other electronic devices that don't have hands-free controls will also become a primary offense. Breaking the law is punishable by a fine of $100 to $300.

State Police worked with the Governor's Highway Safety Program to target distracted drivers. Program director Bob Tipton said it's difficult to get accurate numbers on how many people talk on their cellphones or text while driving, because many are reluctant to admit they were using their phone at the time of an accident.

"We know it's a huge problem," Tipton said.

He said he was once hit by a driver who was on a cellphone. "I saw it coming, and I couldn't get out of the way," Tipton said.

Zerkle said most West Virginians will abide by the new cellphone law once they know it's in place. State Police have been trying to tell motorists that the law will become a primary offense starting this summer.

Kanawha County officials have already banned the use of cellphones by county employees while driving. And while the new law has exemptions for law enforcement officers, Baylous said West Virginia State Police Superintendent Col. Jay Smithers is strongly discouraging state troopers from using cellphones in their cars unless absolutely necessary.

"We'll be setting the example," Baylous said.

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.

 


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