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Sheriff's office course demonstrates dangers of distracted driving

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Juggling the phone, pushing his reading glasses up his nose and trying to steer, Kanawha Sheriff John Rutherford knocked a few orange cones as he zipped a golf cart around a course set up outside the county courthouse.

His top speed was about 10 mph but he was having difficulty maneuvering the shiny black sheriff's department cart and reading the texts popping up on his cellphone.

Sgt. Justin Thaxton and Cpl. Paxton Lively were sending text messages to drivers as they steered around the orange-coned course, trying and succeeding in being a distraction.

The sheriff took me on a spin around the course to demonstrate after I failed to navigate the course without casualty.

His department regularly takes the course on the road to area schools. The goal is to teach young people the dangers of distracted driving.

"It's been an eye-opener for a lot of people, especially these young people," Rutherford said steering around the course. "They have a hard time realizing how much they lose control in just a second or two."

At Tuesday's event, anyone was welcome to test his or her skills with a phone behind the wheel. Kanawha County Prosecutor Mark Plants and county engineer John Luoni gave it a shot as did members of the public and the media.

There were also vendors on hand from nTelos and AT&T to show customers the various hands-free devices they offer. Coupons were disseminated.

Texting while driving has been illegal since last July, but on Monday it becomes illegal for drivers to use their cellphones while driving without a hands-free device.

Serious fines follow if you're caught on the phone behind the wheel. A first offense warrants a $100 fine, second offense is a $200 fine and the third and subsequent offense gets a $300 fine. Rutherford said deputies would be out starting Monday to enforce the distracted driving law.

Starting July 9 officers can pull over motorists for not wearing a seatbelt. Click it or ticket, as they say. 

With his cellphone in his left hand resting against the wheel, Rutherford was steering with his right hand, though he also used his left somewhat to drive. The winding course was similar to the roads the state has to offer with wide turns and hairpin curves.

"It's hard to concentrate on what you're doing even at 10 miles an hour," he said. "It's difficult."

He told me Monday while we were talking about distracted driving that the average time a person takes their eyes off the road to check a text is about 4.6 seconds, which also happens to be the amount of time it takes a car traveling 55 mph to go the length of a football field.

I told him he was hitting cones. He responded that he was trying to avoid them. Then he ran a stop sign while looking at the phone.

The deputies asked him via text message where he was going.

"They're asking me where I'm going and I'm trying to tell them I'm going in circles, but I misspelled it because I'm trying to concentrate on my driving," Rutherford said. "I was only going three miles an hour so if I was actually trying to drive, we would have hit the cones."

I didn't do so hot on my spin around the course.

I'd never driven a golf cart before but it seemed pretty simple. It moves a lot slower than the Buick I'm currently driving. Cpl. Rich Lane got in beside me and told me the number I was supposed to text while driving.

You mean I have to input the number and drive? OK, adding to the level of difficulty, I see.

I took off, with my trusty smart phone in my right hand and my left hand gripping the wheel. I moved slowly around the course as I tapped in the number and sent a simple message, "Hi" to the deputy at the table under the tent. One of them responded after a few moments with "Hello. Is it vqcation time yet".

I continued around the course slowly trying to avoid cones and watch my speed (there was a deputy in the cart after all). I was watching the road and my phone for an incoming text when -- thump, thump, thump.

I'd run over three or four cones in a hairpin curve.

"You weren't even texting but the anticipation of a text took your attention from the road," Lane said.

An intern from the sheriff's department pulled the cones from under the cart and set them back up in the turn. I continued and responded to the text. The deputy texted back, "where we going," but I had already stopped. I'd had enough.

It was hard to do at a little less than 10 mph on a little course in a parking lot, Lane told me. Imagine it at normal speed in a regular car.

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

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