WHEELING - Local law enforcement said drivers' behavior during the past year has flown in the face of legislation banning cell phone use, but starting today, motorists lose a layer of protection that has helped them stay on the phone while behind the wheel.
Texting and driving has been a primary offense, meaning officers can stop drivers they spot texting. Meanwhile, talking on a cell phone while driving has been a secondary offense; officers could not stop drivers for talking, but could cite them for doing so while committing another offense, such as speeding.
Talking while driving becomes a primary offense today, and all cell phone use must be hands-free. Legislators delayed the enforcement for a year to allow drivers to acclimate themselves to the law, but local police said many motorists have ignored the rule, even if statistics do not show it.
Wheeling police officers issued 15 citations for using a cell phone while driving since last July, while Ohio County sheriff's deputies cited only nine drivers in that time. West Virginia State Police did not have statistics for the previous year, but during the "Six-State Trooper Project" earlier this month, troopers statewide issued 223 citations in six days. Some of those citations were warnings.
"They're driving like they're intoxicated - weaving back and forth on the interstate," Wheeling Police Cpl. and Highway Safety Director Neil Fowkes said of drivers using cell phones. "It's causing traffic accidents."
The most common excuse drivers have thrown at Fowkes is that they were not texting - they were scrolling through their contacts or preparing to make a phone call and they just picked up the phone.
Additionally, the law forbids police from seizing a driver's cell phone, so officers can not get a glimpse at the phone's screen to determine if the driver was being honest or if they were texting.
That requires police to follow drivers and observe their behavior, all while going unnoticed. Fowkes patrols in an unmarked car, which allows him to easily trail some drivers as they stare at their phones. Officers traveling in marked cruisers have to be more careful to avoid detection. If the driver continues in their denials and opts to the contest a citation, police can provide the court with a supplemental narrative, which details their incriminating behavior while behind the wheel.
Fowkes' account of the actions of some drivers indicates motorists may have spent the past year learning how to avoid getting caught on their phones rather than adjusting to the law's requirements.
At DUI and seat belt checkpoints, Fowkes has witnessed some drivers quickly toss their phones to the floor of the car when they spot law enforcement - which was enough to avoid being cited during the past year. Today, however, any cell phone use by a driver must be hands free, and just being spotted looking at a phone or holding one to your ear is grounds for police to initiate a traffic stop.
Violation of the law carries a $100 fine for the first offense; $200 fine for the second offense; and third and subsequent offenses will result in a $300 fine and 3 points against the driver's license.