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In W.Va., 125 convictions since July for cellphone use while driving

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.

"Our officers are using their discretion and good judgment," he said.

Baylous said the texting ban, like the seatbelt law, acts as a deterrent -- people change their habits because there's a law on the books.

"It's a step in the right direction," said Baylous, whose agency is working with the state Department of Transportation and the Department of Health and Human Resources to spread the word about the new law. "Anything that enhances highway safety, we're for it."

In April, the State Police received federal grant money to start a program designed to crack down on distracted driving. The program -- called "Operation Chain Reaction" -- pays troopers to go on extra patrols and look for distracted drivers along highways in 21 counties.

The DMV and State Police don't collect the number of citations that police have issued to drivers for texting and cellphone use, so, presumably, citation numbers would be substantially higher than convictions.

People who text while behind the wheel are 23 times more likely to get in accidents, highway safety studies have shown. The accident rate also is higher for drivers who chat on hand-held cellphones.

The texting-while-driving prohibition applies to "smart phones" and other mobile devices. Sending emails and playing video games on those devices while driving also is illegal.

"Sometimes, just having the law in place is enough to change the behavior," Harvey said. "It's important to always have your eyes on the road. We're in the business of saving lives and reducing injuries."

Under the law, motorists can still call 911 to report accidents and other emergencies with a cellphone. Hands-free, or voice-command, text messaging also would be allowed.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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