CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- Motorists will soon risk getting pulled over and ticketed if they text while driving in West Virginia.
The State Police and other law enforcement agencies plan to start enforcing this part of a new distracted driving law on Sunday.
Also as of July 1, drivers can be cited for hands-on cell phone use. But that violation along cannot trigger a traffic stop until mid-2013. Violating the law is punishable by a $100 fine for a first offense.
State Police officials say troopers will apply discretion while enforcing the new law. That department and other state agencies hope an ongoing education campaign will help dissuade motorists from this common but dangerous habit.
West Virginia has put up signs along highways and taken other steps to alert people to the looming ban.
Starting July 1, if you're caught texting while driving, police can pull you over and give you a ticket. But, the question is -- with cell phone use so prevalent while driving -- will this law change anything?
While texting while driving has become a deadly habit and people know the dangers, they just can't help themselves.
“Why do you do it?” WSAZ.com's Carrie Cline asked a driver.
“I don't know," the driver responded. "The phone rings and you just pick the phone and start texting back.”
“If you think nicotine's addictive, try taking someone's cell phone away,” Huntington Traffic Safety Director Larry Kendall said.
But, the state of West Virginia is hoping folks will put their phones away while driving. Signed into law on Wednesday and effective July 1, texting while driving will become a primary offense. That means, if police see you texting, they can pull you over and they can give you a ticket.
Kendall says, in addition to folks taking their hands off the wheel and eyes off the road, they're also taking their minds off the task at hand.
“If you're talking to someone at the office, your brain is seeing that file cabinet and not the road in front of you, not the small child, not the animal in the road,” Kendall said. “Even at 60 mph, at three seconds you've gone the length of a football field with no eyes on the road. That's a long distance with a lot of things that can happen in a short amount of time."
Still, getting folks to change may be easier said than done.
“That's a hard adjustment to make, and sometimes the threat of a citation is the only thing that's going to change that mindset,” Kendall said.
A driver said, “I’ll definitely change now that I know it’s against the law," while another driver said, "I don’t think I’ll change, and I don’t think a lot of others will either.”
When the law goes into effect July 1, making texting while driving a primary offense, talking while driving will become a secondary offense -- meaning law enforcement officers have to stop you for something else before they can ticket you.
But, starting July 2013, talking while driving (without a hands-free set) will also become a primary offense and we saw many more folks doing that on Wednesday than texting.
There's actually a safety pledge that Tomblin would like every West Virginian to sign and submit. You can find that pledge under the Featured Links here at WSAZ.com.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed Senate Bill 211 Tuesday. The bill makes texting while driving a primary offense starting July 1 and talking on a cellphone without a hands-free device a secondary offense. Starting July 1, 2013, talking on a cellphone without a hands-free device will become a primary offense.
"The operating mission statement of the West Virginia State Police stresses our commitment to creating and maintaining a safe environment for motorists traveling on the State's roadways. The recent passage of legislation pertaining to texting and cellular phone usage while driving a motor vehicle enhances our efforts to ensure such an environment," said West Virginia State Police Col. C. R. "Jay" Smithers. "Distracted driving increasingly seems to be the underlying cause of many traffic crashes, not only in West Virginia but throughout the country. This new law should be successful in preventing a great deal of loss to both property and human lives. I applaud Governor Earl Ray Tomblin and the Legislature for their continued commitment to highway safety."
Gov. Tomblin traveled to several schools in West Virginia to discuss the new legislation. He spoke with students at Inwood, Bridgeport and Bluefield schools. A new safe driver pledge was part of the discussion.
The pledge was signed by Gov. Tomblin and a new website was unveiled where all W.Va. drivers can sign the pledge.
"Both the bill and my safe driver pledge are about making our roads safer," Gov. Tomblin said. "I spoke with several heartbroken families today who lost loved ones in car accidents caused by distracted drivers, and I assured them I was doing everything possible to prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future. Unfortunately, cellphones cause a real distraction-a distraction we can't afford on our roadways."
The pledge is as follows:
I pledge to put my safety and the safety of others first.
I will not text while I am driving b/c it cn w8.
I will always use a hands-free cellphone while driving because I am a responsible driver.
I will do my part in keeping our roadways safe.
You can sign the pledge by clicking here.
The Governor also presented students with finger guards that make it impossible to text when they are worn.
The proposed law is among Tomblin's policy initiatives this legislative session. The Senate has already passed out a version of the bill that would make texting a primary offense and using a handheld cellphone a secondary offense.
Tomblin said Wednesday that drivers who text represent a major hazard on West Virginia's roads. Such a law would encourage motorists to put down their phones.
Similar legislation was killed last year after the two chambers could not agree whether violating the texting ban should be a primary or a secondary offense. Tomblin said he believes the House will pass the texting bill this year.
It's not illegal in West Virginia, so some concerned city leaders in Charleston are trying to get a ban of their own.
State lawmakers have debated banning texting while driving for years but haven't. This year, they disagreed over how significant of a crime it should be considered.
As you zip down the highway, it's not hard to find someone whose attention is not on the road.
"I was kind of dumb, so I do regret it. But, I didn't cause any accidents," Kellen Woodson says.
But time and again, many drivers who text have caused dangerous crashes. So, Charleston city leaders want to put the brakes on it with a ban.
"Personally, I've always felt that outlawing cell phone use is a very difficult bill to draft because everyone has a legitimate exception to it: emergency phone call, police, so forth and so on," says Council Member Dave Higgins, who chairs the streets and traffic committee.
Another major concern, Higgins says, is people driving in from other areas who may not even know that texting while driving is illegal.
Higgins asks, "Is it fair to do this? And if so, is posting sufficient to notify the public. And if so, how many entrances are there to Charleston that would need to be posted?"
Another question: would the state even allow it? A couple years ago, the city drafted an ordinance against jake braking (an engine breaking mechanism). But, city officials say the state wouldn't let Charleston put any signs up on state roads and interstates, saying that would be illegal. That’s because it wasn't a crime at the state level.
Now, city leaders say they’re concerned it will be the same case with texting while driving.
"I'm all for anything that makes the roads a little safer because of the high amount of accidents that we have," Brenda Casto says.
City leaders also have raised concerns that a ban on texting could be hard to enforce. They say what's illegal on Quarrier Street, a city road, could be legal on Greenbrier Street, a state road.
So, while the council members’ goal may be clear, the road to get there is not.
Several national polls, including one by Harris Interactive, show most people think text while driving is dangerous and should be outlawed. However, those same polls show most people still admit to having done it at some point.
The majority of states have banned texting while driving.
In Charleston, police say those drivers are responsible for more and more crashes.
New data show about 120 crashes in Charleston linked to distracted driving this year.
"It's a little bit of everything. Driving is one of the hardest things to do because you have to multitask. You throw in a cell phone, trying to text, it increases the chance of having a motor vehicle crash tenfold," Sgt. Shawn Williams said.
State leaders are debating new laws aimed at dealing with the distracted driving problem.
"There's not a magic pill you can take to make it safe for you to text and drive," said state Sen. Karen Facemyer (R-Jackson) who backs a push to ban texting.
However, in the past some of those laws haven't gone anywhere, including a ban on sending text messages while driving.
“We would love to see a law, but at the same time we'd like to see a law that has some teeth behind it. And what I mean by that, is as long as it's a primary offense and not a secondary offense," Williams said.
Legislators have been talking about banning texting while driving for years.
During the December legislative interim meetings a committee looked a two similar drafts of bills that would ban texting. They would make texting while driving a primary offense, but they differ on the fines drivers would receive if caught breaking the law.
The draft bills have exceptions to allow emergency responders to text, but some critics say they’d like the ban to apply to everyone.
"We've raised a lot of awareness that I hope has helped. But, I think the problem in getting it passed is the age-old adage that mountaineers are always free,” Facemyer said.
Shellee Bassham of Seth said she avoids using her phone behind the wheel, but she doubts a law would lead others to follow her example.
"I think people would just talk on it because they don't care," Bassham said.
Legislators will look at the proposed ban on texting again before the regular session starts next month.