7-1-13 W.Va. to step up distracted driving fight July 1

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Motorists have had a year to prepare for West Virginia’s newest effort to deter distracted driving, and starting Monday they face getting pulled over if caught talking on phones that aren’t hands-free.

The state outlawed both texting and hands-on cellphone use last July 1. Violators face a $100 fine for a first offense.

But until Monday, drivers could not prompt a traffic stop solely for violating the hands-on phone provision. It’s been treated as a secondary offense, meaning a motorist has to commit some other violation to get pulled over.

The State Police issued 223 warnings and citations for that secondary offense June 16-22 as part of a multistate partnership aimed at reducing distracted driving related crashes, 1st Sgt. Michael Baylous said Friday.

“They would have been pulled over for speeding or defective equipment, improper lane change, you name it,” said Baylous, a department spokesman.

The effort, the 6-State Trooper Project, also includes Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Michigan. While promoting public awareness, it focuses on such signs of distracted driving as following too closely, driving left of the center line and lane violations.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has made targeting distracted driving a priority. He’s kicking off a safety campaign Monday at the Tamarack artisan center along the West Virginia Turnpike in Beckley. Tomblin has enlisted the State Police, the Department of Transportation and other agencies in what’s expected to be a multimedia public education program.

Transportation spokesman Brent Walker cited Division of Highways’ efforts to raise public awareness, in part by posting signs at all border crossings.

“It’s Highway’s role to provide safety to the traveling public,” Walker said. “We recognize that everyone has a role in highway safety.”

West Virginia is among 11 states that ban drivers from using handheld cellphones, and among 41 that bar them from texting, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It counted 3,331 people killed and another 387,000 injured in crashes involving a distracted driver in 2011, the latest year for agency figures.

The state also is upgrading another key motor safety law to primary status, on July 9. West Virginia requires drivers and passengers to wear seat belts, but has treated a violation as a secondary offense. After years of debate and failed measures, the Legislature stiffened the law this session. The fine for failing to wear a seat belt will be $25, with no court costs or points on a driver’s license.

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