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Cellphone law kicks in Monday

Jun. 26, 2013 @ 11:33 PM

BARBOURSVILLE -- West Virginia's hands-free cellphone law takes effect next week as a primary offense, and just-released numbers from the state police show that many of the state's drivers haven't made the switch.

Troopers issued 223 citations statewide during a seven-day period earlier this month for those talking on a handheld device while driving, according to numbers released Wednesday by State Police 1st Sgt. Michael Baylous. His tally includes both fines and warnings issued from June 16 to June 22, when West Virginia troopers joined five other states in targeting distracted driving.

Beginning Monday, July 1, the new law means that police officers can pull over any driver they spot talking on a handheld device. Until then police needed to notice another violation, such as speeding or defective equipment to stop a driver for violating the law.

State Police Superintendent Jay Smithers has urged troopers to use discretion, good judgment and defer to common sense, said Baylous, who serves as public information officer for the agency.

"It will be like any highway safety violation," he added. "If we spot it, we're going to take the appropriate action to address it. That could mean a warning citation, or in some cases an actual citation that will involve a fine and court costs."

Huntington Police Capt. Mike Albers said his patrolmen already have been enforcing the hands-free law as a secondary offense. They have noticed in many instances handheld cellphone calls might have contributed to the driver speeding, running stop signs and other violations.

"We won't be shy about writing citations for it," he said. "If this was a totally, brand new thing we would encourage (officers) to ease into it with perhaps warnings and things like that, but really the last year as a secondary offense has been that warning."

By October 2013, using a handheld device will be a primary offense in 11 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which prohibit all drivers from using handheld cellphones while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

There are no laws that ban handheld talking and driving in Kentucky or Ohio, although both prohibit texting while driving. Texting laws in West Virginia and Kentucky are listed as a primary offense already.

Despite the impending law change in West Virginia, plenty of hands-free devices remained on the shelf Wednesday at Target in Barboursville. The retail store hasn't noticed a rush of buyers, said Alex Procter, its executive team leader for logistics. He chalked that up in part to a lack of awareness about the law.

Another factor may be newer vehicles increasingly have the technology already installed. For those with older models, Target's choices range from earpieces and microphone-equipped ear buds to another device that simply clips onto the driver's sun visor. Prices ranged from $19 to $80 depending upon the item and the quality of its speaker/microphone.

Baylous frequently wears his hands-free device. He will be the first to acknowledge the earpieces are not fashionable, but his heart rests with safety on the road and educating others when he keeps it on during public appearances and press interviews.

"If it means by me changing my behavior and wearing an earpiece that someone else, or even myself, makes it home to my family that evening, it's worth it," he said. "I'll risk that, being called unfashionable, if it means I'm going to potentially keep someone else from dying in a traffic crash.

"It's a small sacrifice on my part," Baylous added.

Like smoking and seat belt usage, the first sergeant said modifying society's use of cellphones while driving will come through a combination of enforcement and education. Baylous explained state officials will unveil a series of public service announcements and educational components at a press conference set to take place Monday in Beckley, W.Va.

Procter said he has found the hands-free devices are most popular with business people and vendors who deliver items. Baylous agreed with that assessment. The trooper added that he finds the hands-free device makes him much more efficient as he constantly finds himself needing to speak with the press as he drives to various events and situations.

"It allows me to keep both hands on the wheel, do what I need to do and focus on my surroundings," he said. "I'm able to react more quickly."

Albers said much of traffic enforcement is sparked by spontaneous acts, most often an officer noticing something illegal. He said that will be the way his officers enforce the hands-free law as well, although he anticipates federal funding will soon become available to support targeted enforcement.

Follow Curtis Johnson at Facebook.com/curtisjohnsonHD and via Twitter @curtisjohnsonHD.



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