Police aim to catch distracted drivers

SOUTH CHARLESTON – The West Virginia State Police is kicking off an enforcement initiative to reduce distracted driving.

Operation Chain Reaction is in full swing across the state and Wood County, said Sgt. Michael Baylous, public information officer for the West Virginia State Police.

The idea came from a marketing class at Winfield High School and grew into the current program.

”They came up with a slogan, ‘Start a chain reaction, eliminate distraction,”’ Baylous said.

Through the initiative funded by federal grants, troopers will be on the roads in an attempt to identify distracted drivers.

While many usually consider distracted driving as texting and using a cellphone, authorities say it also can include putting on makeup, shaving, reading a newspaper and eating, Baylous said.

”It could be people messing around with their XM or Sirius Satellite Radio for too long,” Baylous said. ”One of the strangest things I heard of was someone trying to eat a bowl of chili while they were driving. They are all distractions.”

The program is kicking off to remind drivers that on July 1, talking on a cellphone while driving becomes a primary offense, which is an offense drivers can be pulled over for.

”It is anything that could cause someone to drive in a hazardous manner,” Baylous said.

Since the program was announced this week, social media sites have been active with people questioning the validity of this campaign and what they will be pulled over for. People have asked if drinking a Coke, eating a sandwich or smoking a cigarette were grounds to be pulled over.

Baylous said some responses were “ludicrous and juvenile.”

”We’re reasonable,” Baylous said of instances when they would pull motorists over, adding the key will be if the driver is maintaining adequate control of their vehicle without diverting their attention on other things.

The point is to keep roads safe, he said.

Baylous pointed out police officers have an exemption in talking on cellphones. That exemption exists for official police business in dealing with personal information people would not want transmitted over the radio.

Baylous said Col. Jay Smithers, commander of the West Virginia State Police, has warned troopers not to abuse the exception. Troopers have hands-free devices to talk on their cellphones, he said.

Officials used Highway Safety data to identified roads in West Virginia with a high volume of alcohol-related crashes. That information is going to be used in conjunction with the enforcement effort to target areas across the state. They have compiled a list of the top 100 roads in the state where alcohol-related accidents occur.

In Wood County, state police will be doing increased patrols along W.Va. 47, W.Va. 14, W.Va. 68, W.Va. 2 and U.S. 50, said 1st Sgt. Brad Snodgrass of the Wood County Detachment of the State Police.

”People will see and increased presence and more road patrols,” he said. ”These can occur anytime, day or night.”

A lot of the focus will be on people who are still texting or talking on a cell phone without a hands-free device, but it can also involve people with a cellphone in their hands using map and other functions as well as other distractions instead of concentrating on driving, Snodgrass said.

”Those kinds of things will be what we are looking for,” he said.