By Mannix Porterfield
Texting while driving becomes a primary offense under a revised bill approved Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee, while merely talking on a hand-held device would be a secondary one.
The difference is that a primary offense is the only reason a police officer needs to pull a driver over and write out a ticket.
Before shipping the bill out to the floor on a unanimous vote, the panel adopted an amendment by Sen. Orphy Klempa, D-Ohio, adding three points to a motorist’s license after the third and subsequent violations.
In support of his amendment, Klempa said the Legislature needs to crack down on “habitual texters.”
Deputy Motor Vehicles Commissioner Steve Dale dropped a stunning statistic on the committee that left one senator aghast — that a texter is 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash, contrasted with four times for a drunken one. Talking on a phone means a driver’s chances of wrecking is four times as great.
“Wow,” said Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, so taken with the figures he asked Dale to repeat them.
After the committee vote, Jason Pizatella, legislative liaison for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, called the measure “a good compromise.”
“We knew the Legislature was leaning in this direction,” he said of making texting a primary violation.
Both the House Roads and Transportation Committee and the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee preferred to make texting a secondary offense.
The Senate bill could be up for a vote Friday, while the House version is yet to be taken up by that chamber’s judiciary panel. Once there, a fight appears imminent on following the Senate lead on texting.
“The bill will have an impact, regardless of how the final bill ends up,” Pizatella told reporters.
Pizatella said the governor’s staff likewise has no beef with adding points to drivers repeatedly ticketed for texting.
Tomblin called on lawmakers in his State of the State address to clamp down on texting as a safety issue, but his bill specified violations as secondary ones.
About a week ago, he said in a brief interview that a primary offense bill, if sent to his desk, likely would be signed.
Before the Senate committee work, Janet Vineyard, president of the West Virginia Trucking Association, said her group is in “very much in favor” of a primary offense law.
Federal highway rules forbid truckers from texting or chatting on hand-held wireless devices.
Vineyard said she experimented with texting once while driving and found that it leaves a driver impaired.
“You see how long you don’t look at the highway,” she said.
“It takes longer than you think and it doesn’t take but just a second for something to happen. In our opinion, there’s nothing that important that you can’t pull off the road or wait until you get to your destination.”
Vineyard said truckers constantly provide her with anecdotal evidence of drivers weaving in and out of traffic while using hand-held phones.
“Distracted driving is the No. 1 cause of accidents,” she said, adding this also includes fiddling with a radio, or fixing one’s hair.
“Safety should be your No. 1 concern on the highway. Life’s too short.”
Vineyard cited figures provided by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration showing 34 states have outlawed texting, and all but three are primary offense statutes.
Nine states disallow hand-held phones for talking, and all but one are primary laws.
Another difference in the Senate version is the change in the penalty structure. When it was a secondary crime to text, the first offense stipulated a $100 fine, and $200 for a second one, then $400 for third and subsequent violations.
Under the new bill, those penalties are cut in half.
While he voted for the bill, Sen. Richard Browning, D-Wyoming, voiced concern that it might prompt some confusion for police officers attempting to discern if a motorist were texting or talking while punching in the numbers.
Some lawmakers have indicated that a secondary offense would dramatically reduce texting, much the same as the secondary seatbelt law has changed the driving public’s attitude toward using them.
Dale provided a statistic that appeared to bolster their argument.
Since the seatbelt law went on the books, he said, compliance has gone from 33 percent to 85 percent. The fine for non-use is $25 and no points go on a license.
Simply having a traffic safety law on the books is “a great influence,” Dale told the committee.
“It sends a clear message to all drivers that texting with a cell phone while driving is unsafe,” he added.
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