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W.Va.'s mobile phone laws about to get tougher

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The crackdown on distracted driving in Kanawha County begins Monday.

That's when the state's new law on distracted driving takes full effect.

The first phase of the law, which made texting while driving a primary offense and talking while driving without a hands-free device a secondary offense, took effect last year.

An officer can pull over a driver for a primary offense. A secondary offense can result in a ticket, but the driver had to first break some other law to be pulled over.

That changes Monday, when law enforcement officers can pull drivers over if they see them using a cellphone without a hands-free device.  

Deputies will increase patrols and specifically target distracted drivers, Kanawha Sheriff John Rutherford said. He said the department has funding from the Governor's Highway Safety Program for overtime on enforcement.

"We'll have deputies on patrol and on overtime assigned to areas where their main focus will be to do nothing other than enforce distracted driving laws," Rutherford said.

Violators can be fined $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second and $300 for any subsequent offenses. It may also cost the driver three points on their driver's license.

Thought law enforcement officers are exempt from the law, Kanawha deputies are required to use hands-free devices in their cruisers.

The average person looks away from the road 4.6 seconds while sending or receiving a text, which is also the amount of time it takes a vehicle going 55 mph to travel the length of a football field, Rutherford said.

"The statistics show that texting and driving is more deadly than drinking and driving," Rutherford said. "A lot can happen in 4.6 seconds. A lot of bad things can happen in that amount of time."

The sheriff has a short drive home from the Charleston headquarters but said he "can't help but count how many people are on cellphones" while on the way. He said the number is "staggering."

Some of the common signs of distracted driving are weaving, drifting across lanes, turning without signaling and standing at a green light - similar to those of a person driving impaired.

But distracted driving isn't just texting or chatting on a cellphone; it could be anything from fiddling with the radio to putting on makeup or disciplining children.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 3,331 people nationwide were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver in 2011. That same year saw about 387,000 people injured in distracted driving related crashes.

Deputies also will be on the lookout for aggressive drivers and seatbelt violators, Cpl. Brian Humphreys said.

Seatbelt use also used to be a secondary offense, but as of July 9, officers can stop anyone seen driving without a seat belt.

The sheriff's department will host a distracted driving course this afternoon for anyone who wants to give it a try. Rutherford called it a safe way to demonstrate the dangers of driving while distracted.

Participants will drive a golf cart through the course with a deputy while another deputy sends them text messages and calls them, Humphreys said.  

The corporal said cellphone company vendors will be on hand to talk about different hands-free products and may have coupons for participants.

"It's part of what we do," Rutherford said. "It's our job to keep the community safe.

"We don't want to be a department that just reacts all the time. It's important to us as members of the community to keep it safe, so it's nice to be able to do things to educate as well as enforce."

He said he'd spoken to other elected officials and that all seemed to be on board with it.

The course will run from 1:30 to 4 p.m. today in the parking lot of the Kanawha County Courthouse near Kanawha Boulevard and Goshorn Street.

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

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