PARKERSBURG - Since the beginning of July, a driver in West Virginia found to be using a handheld cellphone - for texting or talking - while operating a motor vehicle can be cited by police.
For the past year, talking on a cellphone without using a hands-free device has been a secondary offense, meaning law enforcement officers had to have another reason for stopping a driver before a citation for the cellphone use could be issued.
Since July 1, that action has become a primary offense for which a driver can receive a traffic citation, with no other offenses required. First time offenders can be fined $100.
Chief Deputy Shawn Graham with the Wood County Sheriff's Office said the sheriff's office rarely cited drivers in connection with cellphone usage in the past year when it was a secondary offense. However, with that year for people to get used to the law, deputies have taken a stronger stance with the change to a primary offense.
Deputies have written six citations since July 1 on the charge of driving while using an electronic communication device, Graham said. Those have ranged from a deputy simply observing a person talking on a cellphone and making the traffic stop to observing erratic driving and determining it was because of cellphone use, he said.
"It's something we're committed to," Graham said, with deputies working to reduce distracted driving.
Law enforcement is not seeking to raise the number of fines assessed against drivers or place more financial burdens on people, Graham said. Officers just want to raise awareness and increase safety on the roads.
"It's a necessary enforcement effort," he said.
For the Parkersburg Police Department, the higher number of heavily traveled streets and greater number of pedestrian use on city sidewalks has increased the department's focus on enforcing the new ban, said Sgt. Greg Collins with the PPD.
"Because of our crowded streets and the large number of pedestrians walking on our sidewalks and crossing at crosswalks, we will take this new ban seriously," Collins said. "We have an enormous amount of vehicle traffic in Parkersburg, and in a lot of areas, they must run very close to each other. There is already no room for error."
Since July 1, Parkersburg officers have issued 47 citations, Collins said. Part of that is due to the department's participation in grant-funded enforcement of the law through the Governor's Highways Safety Program. Under that program, officers are working grant-funded overtime focusing specifically on enforcing the cellphone law.
"We've taken a lot of effort to warn people over the last year, but the time has come to enforce this law and contribute to safer roadways," Collins said. "The amount of time our officers can spend on traffic enforcement is always limited because of an enormous call volume. Our current manpower shortage also makes that effort even more difficult. But we'll be on the watch for people violating this law when time permits and issue a citation when appropriate," he said.
In addition to the cellphone law, driving without a seat belt also became a primary offense for West Virginia drivers this month. Prior to July 9, drivers could be ticketed for a no seat belt offense only if they had been pulled over for something else.
The law requires drivers and passengers in the front seats to wear a safety restraint. Under the new law, no other citable offense is required for a traffic stop to be made. If pulled over, the driver is the one who gets the ticket, a $25 fine with no court costs associated with it.