Put Your Cell Phones Away: West Virginia Passes Distracted-Driving Law

Until recently, drivers in West Virginia have been able to use handheld cell phones to make calls, send and receive text messages, or check e-mails.

But with a stroke of Governor Earl Ray Tomblin's pen, Senate Bill 211 became law and West Virginia joined the fight against distracted driving. Beginning July 1, 2012, drivers throughout the state will be prohibited from texting and otherwise using handheld cell phones while behind the wheel.

"Distracted driving increasingly seems to be the underlying cause of many traffic crashes, not only in West Virginia but throughout the country," the Parkersburg News and Sentinel quoted West Virginia State Police Col. C.R. "Jay" Smithers as saying. "This new law should be successful in preventing a great deal of loss to both property and human lives."

Texting Ban

West Virginia becomes the 36th state to ban texting and driving. The law makes texting a "primary offense," meaning a law enforcement official can pull over a driver if he or she is seen texting without first having to observe the driver commit another offense such as speeding.

A driver caught texting while behind the wheel will be fined $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second offense, and $300 for a third and subsequent offenses. Additionally, for third and subsequent offenses, three points will be assessed against drivers' licenses.

Handheld Cell-Phone Ban

Along with prohibiting text messaging, the new distracted-driving law also bans drivers from all other uses of handheld cell phones, including making phone calls or checking e-mail on smartphones. The law, however, does not forbid drivers from using hands-free voice technology like Bluetooth to make phone calls while driving.

Using a handheld cell phone for anything other than texting is considered a "secondary offense," meaning a law-enforcement official can ticket a driver for using a handheld cell phone only after pulling over him or her for a primary offense such as running a stop sign. However, next year on July 1, 2013, using a handheld cell phone in any way while behind the wheel will become a primary offense.

Distracted Driving

Initially, Gov. Tomblin voiced his intentions to ban texting while driving during his State of the State address, but the governor's texting bill only treated texting as a secondary offense. The decision of the senate to propose and pass a bill making texting a primary offense only serves to underscore the true danger distracted driving, in particular by texting, poses to everyone on the road.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, defines distracted driving as "any activity that could divert a person's attention away from the primary task of driving." Drivers can be diverted from the task at least three ways: manually (taking hands off the steering wheel), visually (taking eyes off the road) and cognitively (taking concentration off driving safely).

According to the NHTSA, distracted driving includes texting and all other uses of a cell phone, but by definition is much broader and encompasses activities such as:

  • Eating or drinking
  • Using a map or navigation system (GPS)
  • Grooming such as brushing teeth or applying makeup
  • Watching a video
  • Talking with passengers
  • Changing the radio station, CD or MP3

Dangers of Distracted Driving

The NHTSA reports that in 2009, nearly 5,500 people were killed and another estimated 448,000 were injured in accidents involving distracted drivers. This corresponds to distracted driving being a factor in 16 percent of fatal and 20 percent of injury car accidents that year.

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, or VTTI, notes that sending a text message takes a driver's eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, and at 55 mph that equates to traveling the length of a football field. Further, the VTTI reports that drivers who text while driving increase their crash risk by 23 times.

Just using a handheld cell phone to talk is dangerous. According to the University of Utah, using cell phones while driving delays drivers' reactions as much as if they were driving with blood alcohol contents of .08 percent (legally drunk in all 50 states).

The new West Virginia law is meant to strike a balance between personal freedom and the safety of other motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians on or near the highways. Distracted driving has led to numerous instances of serious injury and even death. A civil suit against a distracted driver may complement any ensuing criminal action. In many cases a civil lawsuit is the only way for the victim of a distracted driver to obtain full compensation for medical bills, lost wages and other financial losses.