CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Warning to West Virginia motorists: If you text or talk on a hand-held cellphone while driving, you could be pulled over, convicted and fined.
In the first 10 months since the law took effect, there have been 125 convictions of drivers who texted or used their cellphones while driving in West Virginia, according to data from the Division of Motor Vehicles.
The conviction numbers are expected to increase as the new law reaches its first year on the books, and as the ban on talking on a cellphone while driving becomes a primary offense. The stricter enforcement allows police to pull over drivers without first seeing them commit another offense, such as speeding.
"This last year, it's been more about education and awareness," said DMV spokeswoman Natalie Harvey, "but the law is there for a reason, and police are certainly enforcing it."
Beckley Municipal Court had the largest number of convictions, with 13, followed by Berkeley County, with 12, and Kanawha County, with 10 convictions. Some counties and municipalities had only a single conviction, according to the DMV data.
While the 125 statewide convictions might seem small, neighboring states such as Virginia reported 316 texting-while-driving convictions last year, even though Virginia has four times as many residents and a texting ban that's been on the books for four years. (Virginia's law does not prohibit talking on a cellphone while driving.)
The Legislature passed Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's distracted-driving bill last year, making West Virginia the 36th state to ban texting while driving.
The law makes texting a primary offense. Drivers caught texting while 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.
Using a handheld cellphone to talk while driving also is against the law, but remains a secondary offense until July 1, when it becomes a primary offense. Violations would carry the same fines as texting.
Sgt. Mike Baylous of the West Virginia State Police said he's noticed a sharp decline in the number of drivers who text, but he still sees "quite a few" motorists who still talk on hand-held cellphones.
Baylous said he believes some troopers are issuing citations, while others hand out warnings, depending on the situation.