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Tom Miller: Time for W.Va. drivers to put away the cellphones

May. 27, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

Motorists in West Virginia have only a few weeks remaining to legally send and receive text messages on their cellphones while driving. SB 211, which was recommended by the governor and passed by the 2012 Legislature back in March, was a 90-day bill which means it doesn't become effective until June 8. And, in reality, the full impact of the new law won't be felt until July 1 when law enforcement officials will be able to actually charge drivers with a violation.

According to the provisions of SB211, anyone who is charged with "driving or operating a motor vehicle on a public street or highway while 'texting' will be guilty of a primary traffic offense starting July 1, 2012. But any motorist stopped for "driving or operating a motor vehicle while using a cell phone or other electronic communication device without hands-free equipment" will be guilty of a secondary offense starting on July 1, 2012.

This means the driver can only be charged with this offense if he or she is pulled over for some other major traffic offense such as speeding. However, that offense will also become a primary violation a year later on July 1, 2013, and motorists can then be pulled over for that single violation.

Penalties for these traffic offenses will be a $100 fine for the first time, a $200 fine for the second offense and $300 for a third or subsequent offense. And three points will be added to the driver's record at the Division of Motor Vehicles for the third and subsequent offenses.

Will this new law save lives, as was the intention of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin when he first suggested the new law back in January? A recent survey of California's four-year-old law that forbids drivers from using hand-held phones indicates it does indeed make a difference.

Research completed in March by the University of California-Berkeley showed an overall drop of 22 percent in highway deaths there. Fatalities linked directly to the use of cellphones by motorists dropped by 47 percent.

The governor considered this step so important he included it in his State of the State speech the opening day of the 2012 legislative session. The new law also will require the West Virginia Department of Transportation to put up signs at all highway entrances to the state "clearly communicating" that texting and other use of any wireless communication device without hands-free equipment is illegal in this state.

There are still those critics who argue that this is a slap against an individual's right and privilege to do whatever he or she pleases while inside their own vehicle. But the effect those actions can have on another motorist or passenger in another vehicle certainly trumps that freedom of choice.

It was not easy to convince people that mandatory use of seat belts was advisable nor even that it would be advisable to place smaller children in car seats for their safety. But those steps have proven to cut down on the number of tragic highway deaths. And restrictions on talking on a cellphone or texting while behind the steering wheel of a moving vehicle seems likely to produce the same positive effect.

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The West Virginia Coal Association and the United Mine Workers of America have joined forces to challenge President Obama's plans to reduce the coal industry's effects on air and water quality in West Virginia. But Coal Association President Bill Raney admitted at the first stop of a three-city tour in Charleston last week that the most recent numbers indicate an increase in coal jobs in West Virginia during Obama's term in office.

Figures from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration show employment in the coal industry in West Virginia for the first quarter of 2012 was 24,500 -- the highest number in 20 years. But Coal Association Vice President Chris Hamilton said on a radio talk show the same day -- a station that gets a lot of financial support from the Coal Association -- that increased MSHA regulations are forcing the industry to hire more people.

"Part of the reason the employment is up is it's costing quite a bit more to mine a ton of coal and it's taking several more people than it did a couple of years ago," Hamilton said on the MetroNews show Talkline.

The Charleston event that kicked off the tour was sponsored by the Coal Forum, a taxpayer-funded group. The state legislature created the group years ago and during the last two years lawmakers have ordered the state board that is supposed to focus on technical safety issues to spend $60,000 on Coal Forum issues, according to a recent article in a Charleston newspaper.

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Some people in West Virginia probably think it is foolish for Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette to again spend $1.75 million of taxpayer money to be a major sponsor of the 2012 Greenbrier Classic golf tournament at White Sulphur Springs. It's the same arrangement this branch of state government had a year ago when Burdette finalized an agreement with a company from Thailand to locate a $6 million Precision Converting Solutions plant in South Charleston.

This allows the state to have a luxury hospitality box on the 18th hole. And this year the Division of Tourism plans to set up a separate tent on the 12th fairway to focus on marketing tourism destinations around the state. State agencies will also probably purchase commercials to air during the national television coverage of the golf tournament. Burdette considers it a good investment by the state and it's hard to challenge that view.

Tom Miller is a retired state government reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He is a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch opinion page.




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