West Virginia continues to fight ‘distracted driving’ - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

West Virginia continues to fight ‘distracted driving’

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Although the number of automobile fatalities in the country are largely contributed to drunk driving, distracted driving continues to be a large problem as well.

According to information gathered by the West Virginia Governor’s Highway Safety Program, distracted driving in the Mountain State comes in a close third place for cause of crashes.

National fatality figures say in 2012, distracted driving crashes resulted in 3,328 deaths. While DUI-related crashes resulted in 10,322 deaths nationwide.

Ranking second for cause of crashes is a lack of seat belt usage, with DUI’s remaining in first place for most of the country, including West Virginia.

Driving or operating a motor vehicle on a public street or highway while texting became a primary offense in West Virginia as of July 1, 2012. Driving or operating a motor vehicle on a public street or highway using a cell phone or any other electronic communication device without hands-free equipment became a secondary offense July 1, 2012 and a primary offense as of July 1, 2013.

Harry Anderson, program manager for the GHSP, said no one area of the state is more prone to distracted driving crashes.

“However, distracted driving gets more attention in the more densely populated areas with the higher volume of traffic and better cell reception in the rural areas,” he said.

The WV-GHSP makes overtime funds available to law enforcement agencies with emphasis on NHTSA-mandated “blitz” periods and other periods throughout the year when distracted drivers are targeted.

Anderson said it’s hard to say if a crash is caused by texting or just talking on a cellphone.

The burden of proof is a little harder with texting versus cell phone use, as is evident in the citations reported throughout the state for the time period of Oct. 1, 2013 through April 25:

  • Cell phone citations: 2,021
  • Cell phone warnings: 843
  • Texting citations: 73
  • Texting warnings: 117

There is a section of a crash report that is labeled “Driver Distracted By” and the investigating officer can select “Electronic Communication Device.” Both cellphone use and texting would fall into that category. So, it would be difficult to determine, based on the data which one outranks the other. However, Anderson said it is more challenging for officers to find people texting with their cellphones while driving.

“Comparing the number of citations written so far this fiscal year as compared to the average annual number of 10,000 DUI revocations in West Virginia, I would say that distracted driving would be a close third with (non-belted) fatalities second.”

For fiscal year 2014, West Virginia qualified for Federal Distracted Driving money under the “first year texting ban” rule. Unless the federal qualification rules change for FY 2015, West Virginia will not qualify for distracted driving funding because the statute (WV Code 17C-14-15) does not have language that requires distracted driving questions to be on the written exam for drivers. These types of questions do appear on all of West Virginia’s written exams. To open up this section of statute would require a new bill and legislative approval and open up this section of code for other changes and thus the possibility of weakening a very good distracted driving statute, Anderson added.

Chief Ed Preston with the Morgantown Police Department said his department has issued 41 citations since the law took effect. Morgantown is the fourth largest city in the state.

He said through the legislation, officers are able to initiate traffic stops for probable cause to issue tickets if they see someone driving with a cell phone to his or her ear, in with their hands or on his or her lap.

He said it’s not contained to the type of vehicle they can pull over, so they are able to enforce it on commercial and private vehicles.

Huntington is the second largest city in the state.

Beau Evans is Traffic Safety Director for the City of Huntington.

He works with law enforcement officers in the Governor’s Highway Safety Region 2. There are six counties (Mason, Cabell, Putnam, Lincoln, Wayne and Mingo) he works with on overtime funding for law enforcement, equipment for law enforcement, and education for the public.

Although he doesn’t work directly with the Huntington Police Department, Evans said he comes in to help the officers with their mandatory overtime patrols.

These are the times they can conduct the “blitz” periods — mandated throughout the year.

“Just recently, our program funded Distracted Driving Awareness Patrols for the month of April,” he said. “The Huntington Police Department issued 13 texting citations and 32 cell phone citations during the two week campaign (April 4-13).”

Evans said other police departments he works with wrote a total of 263 overall cell phone citations and three overall texting citations.

As the numbers suggest, it is easier to enforce the cell phone law and a little harder to enforce the texting law, he added.

Awareness campaigns are continuously announced through the GHSP at multiple trainings and classes held with any aged individuals (youth or adult).

Lt. Michael Baylous with the West Virginia State Police said they will be teaming up with the West Virginia Department of Transportation in an effort to reduce fatalities in the state.

Toward the end of May, Baylous said the departments will be conducting a work zone safety program where they will focus on the statewide initiative to issue citations for speeding, reckless and distracted driving in highway work zones.