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Texting law in effect
Practice now a primary offense

Monday, July 1, 2013

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

This is your warning.

Starting today, motorists who send text messages while driving might quickly see a police car pull up behind them.

It already has been illegal to text while driving in Virginia but now, the law makes it a primary offense — police have the authority to stop people who they think are texting behind the steering wheel, just for that reason.

Fines also have increased. For the first offense, the fine will jump from $20 to $125. The fine for subsequent offenses will rise from $50 to $250.

Anyone convicted of reckless driving as a result of texting, such as due to an accident, automatically will be fined at least $250, legislation enacted by the General Assembly earlier this year shows.

Virginia becomes the 40th state in which police can stop drivers who text.

Before now, police could not charge a driver for texting while driving unless they had stopped the person for another violation.

Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry on Saturday did not immediately know how many people his patrol officers have ticketed for texting while driving, but he does not think it has been many.

Officers sometimes have witnessed drivers sending texts, Perry said.

However, “the general public is where I hear most complaints from,” he said. People tell him they have been traveling behind cars that suddenly swerved and then they noticed that the drivers had cell phones in their hands.

Both he and Martinsville Sheriff Steve Draper support the new legislation.

Texting while driving is dangerous, Perry said.

Draper knows from experience. He said that several years ago while driving in the city, he looked down for what he thought was just a second to send a text. When he looked up, he had swerved into the other lane, he said.

“Thank goodness, nothing was coming” toward him in that lane, he added. “But I made up my mind then” not to send texts while driving again.

Martinsville Police Chief Mike Rogers could not be reached for comment. The police department is responsible for enforcing traffic laws in the city.

According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, about 20 percent of traffic accidents statewide are attributable to distracted driving, and cell phone use is the main contributing factor.

The sheriffs said younger people are more likely to text while driving since the technology basically has existed all of their lives, so they may not be as likely to realize the dangers as people who recall times before cell phones.

Draper has a message for them.

“It doesn’t take but a split second” for an accident to happen while texting, he said. “You can cause bodily harm, even death, and you can’t take it back.”

“Nothing is so important” that someone has to immediately send a text in response to one received, Draper said.

If someone thinks it is important to respond immediately, the person should pull into a parking lot or onto the roadside first, he said.

Specifically, the law now states it is illegal to be driving while using “any handheld personal communications device” to send texts or read e-mailed messages or texts either transmitted to, or stored in, the device. Merely glancing at caller ID information is permitted, though.

The law exempts drivers reporting emergencies via their devices, as well as emergency vehicle drivers and people behind the steering wheels of parked cars. It also exempts motorists using global positioning systems.

Simply talking on a phone also is not illegal.

Police generally can tell when someone is texting or reading emails, the sheriffs said.

It is unclear as to whether police would be able to seize the phones of drivers they suspect have broken the law.

The Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services will provide training to police on how to enforce the law, the legislation shows.

Caitlin Westmoreland of Martinsville said she supports the legislation. She said texting while driving is as dangerous as driving after drinking alcohol.

But she thinks the legislation itself will not stop motorists from texting.

“I know so many people who do it already” and say they never have been stopped by police, Westmoreland said.

For that reason, she encourages police officers to actively look for texting motorists, she added.

 

 
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