The days of legally driving while texting in West Virginia are numbered, after a new ban that gradually targets hands-on cellphone chatter became law Friday.
The distracted driving measure is among nearly 70 bills passed by the legislature during this year’s regular session that took effect this week.
But law enforcement won’t begin pulling over motorists for texting until July 1, under the new law’s provisions. While drivers can be cited for hands-on cellphone use as of that date, that violation alone cannot trigger a traffic stop.
Hands-on cellphone use becomes a primary offense, one that can get a motorist pulled over, starting in July 2013.
State Police Superintendent Jay Smithers is expecting his troopers to apply common sense once enforcement begins, acknowledging that there is a learning curve involved with the law targeting a common but dangerous habit, said Sgt. Mike T. Baylous, a state police spokesman.
“Col. Smithers has made it very clear to the troops that he wants them to be reasonable, to use their discretion,” Baylous said Wednesday.
In the meantime, the state police, the West Virginia Division of Highways, the Department of Health and Human Resources — officials consider this a public health issue — and other agencies will try to inform the public of the approaching ban.
The effort will include road signs, speaking to high school students once classes resume in the fall and updating the Division of Motor Vehicles’ driver license handbook.
“We’ll be utilizing our social media, whether through our Facebook page or Twitter,” state Department of Transportation spokesman Brent Walker said.
The campaign also will include the safe driver pledge that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has begun promoting among college and high school students and others. It calls on motorists to to avoid distracted driving.
“If you want to stop texting now, we want you to. We aren’t condoning texting, ever, so we’re hoping people stop tomorrow,” Walker said.
“We just know that it’s become a part of the fabric of society. We want to put great effort into educating and informing,” he said.
At least 39 states ban texting while driving. Nearly 5,500 people across the country were killed in crashes involving driver distraction in 2009 and another 448,000 people were injured, according to the latest figures analyzed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Sixteen percent of all fatal accidents that year involved reports of distracted driving, and teen drivers were more likely than those in other age group to be involved in a fatal crash where distraction is reported, the agency said.
Other laws that took effect Friday include:
• Tomblin’s wide-ranging legislation tackling various forms of drug abuse.
Among other provisions, it will limit sales of medicines containing pseudoephedrine, which can be used to make methamphetamine.
Those products are already only available from behind the counter, and the new law bars an individual from buying to 3.6 grams per day, 7.2 grams per month and 48 grams per year without a prescription.
Those medicines are typically available in doses of between 30 mg and 240 mg, with the high end to be taken only once every 24 hours.
• Several measures to combat child abuse.
One expands mandatory reporting of abuse and neglect, to include youth camp counselors and any adult who witnesses or has knowledge of sexual abuse or assault.
Another new law treats images of partially clothed children known as child erotica when used for sexual gratification, as pornography.
• A bill increasing rules and reporting requirements for scrap metal dealers, to crack down on thefts of wiring and other property from utilities, railroads and other sites.
It specifically targets attempted sales of such items as roadway guard rails, water meter and manhole covers, fire hydrants and historical and cemetery markers.
• The state’s new Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs.
Funding for the new agency, which lawmakers approved after years of debate, will begin with the new budget year July 1.