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State Police increase efforts to eliminate distracted driving

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The push to curb distracted drivers has already begun, but State Police hope that getting the word out will cause people to focus on the road instead of their cellphones or other distractions.

Distracted driving isn't just about cellphones. State troopers have seen drivers shaving, putting on makeup, and reading the newspaper. One reported seeing a driver eating a bowl of chili.

That behavior has to stop, said Sgt. Michael Baylous, State Police spokesman.

Operation Chain Reaction already is in full swing as troopers have been patrolling since the beginning of the month looking for distracted drivers. Students in a marketing class at Winfield High School came up with the name of the operation and its slogan: "Start a chain reaction, eliminate distraction."

Baylous encountered a woman driving distracted Monday while on his way to State Police Headquarters in South Charleston. The woman was speeding while talking on her cellphone and passed him on Interstate 64 without a second glance.

When he pulled her over, she admitted she hadn't been paying any attention and was talking on her cellphone, he said.

State Police received a federal grant through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to fund overtime efforts in 21 counties that were selected to participate in the operation, said Sgt. Christopher Zerkle, director of the Traffic Records division. Detachments in those counties will receive $8,000 to patrol for distracted drivers.

"You'll be seeing them out there," Zerkle said of troopers. "We're going to be focused on distracted driving and people need to be aware of the state code."

Texting while driving became a primary offense last July, but simply talking on a cellphone while driving is still a secondary offense. That will change in July when using a phone without a hands-free device becomes a primary offense.

Authorities may pull a driver over for a primary offense. A secondary offense can only be addressed if the officer has already pulled the driver over.

While using a cellphone without a hands-free device isn't a primary offense yet, the signs that a person is using the phone -- traveling left of center, crossing the centerline, speeding -- are. Baylous said if troopers spot motorists doing those things and then find that the driver was using a cellphone, the person would be cited under the distracted driving law.

The first offense is a $100 fine. The second time it's a fine of $200. The third is $300.

"But let me remind you of this, July 1, 2013, it all becomes a primary offense throughout the state of West Virginia. You have to be hands-free, period," Zerkle said.

Bob Tipton, director of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety, said distracted driving is a bigger issue than many believe.

He said he sees distracted drivers on his daily commute from Beckley to Charleston. A former police officer with 24 years experience, he said the behavior of distracted drivers reminds him of another deadly traffic offense.

"I'm used to seeing people driving like that who are intoxicated," Tipton said. "They're crossing the center line, they're running off the road, they're hitting the rumble strips.

Tipton also encouraged officers to refrain from using their phones while behind the wheel to set a better example.

There is an exemption in the law for first responders, but Baylous said Col. Jay Smithers enacted a policy last year prohibiting troopers from using phones without a hands-free device unless the situation made it absolutely necessary.

He said Smithers was committed to improving highway safety. Officers had been taking an educational approach to the issue since July.

"We're not out there to write a bunch of tickets," Zerkle said. "We're out there to make sure people are aware of the dangers of distracted driving." 

Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at ashley.craig@dailymail.com or 304-348-4850.


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