By Jessica Farrish
Using a handheld device while driving becomes a primary offense July 1 and law enforcement officers around the state will be cracking down on distracted drivers.
“Distracted driving” is driving while doing an activity that takes attention from the road, such as talking on a handheld cell phone.
Using a handheld device while driving has been a secondary offense in the state for a year, meaning officers could cite violators only if they were pulled over for another offense.
Come Monday, Beckley Police Department Lt. Paul Blume said violators will pay a $100 fine for the first offense, $200 for the second, $300 for the third, and that points may be given on the third offense and each additional offense.
For a year, Blume and BPD officers have spread the message about the dangers of distracted driving, even using billboards to urge motorists to “Drive Safe, Park the Phone.”
The prohibition of texting became law in July 2012.
“Distracted driving is actually one of the leading causes of crashes around the country,” said Blume. “The whole first year we’ve been into this, law enforcement officers around the state have been somewhat lenient in how they’ve enforced it.
“The officers have been more into an educational mode, trying to get it out to the public that it’s a law,” he said. “That will change July 1.
“There will be heavy enforcement across the state, particularly in this area.”
As many as 14 agencies, coordinating through the Southern Regional Highway Safety Program, will increase patrols on local roads July 1-15 to focus on citing distracted drivers, said Blume, who serves as its coordinator.
He added that the increased patrols will also result in more arrests for other violations, not just distracted driving.
Blume pointed to the May 17 arrest of Michael Dale Wafford, a Beckley man charged in the stabbing of tattoo artist James Tate at a local business. Wafford was captured by police who had set up a DUI checkpoint in the area where the incident occurred.
“That goes to show you, when our officers make these traffic stops, anything can unfold,” Blume said.
Blume also warned drivers that while not illegal, it’s also distracting to use a Bluetooth, to eat, to talk to kids or other passengers, to put on make-up or to do anything else that takes the focus from the road.
He explained that there are three main types of distracted driving: manual (taking your hands off the wheel), visual (taking your eyes off the road) and cognitive (taking your mind off of driving).
“It’s not just cell phones, but cell phones tend to be one of the biggest problems we’re facing right now with distracted driving,” Blume said. “It’s every age of driver, it’s across the board.
“Everybody’s using a cell phone and driving.”
The federal government maintains a website, www.distraction.gov, devoted to educating drivers on the dangers of driving while distracted. Visitors to the site may click on the “Faces” link to watch as victims of distracted driving share their stories.
Seatbelt violations also become a primary offense beginning July 9.
Blume said drivers who aren’t wearing their seatbelts may be pulled over and are subject to a $25 fine.