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RICHMOND — Troopers enforcing the texting-while-driving ban on Virginia highways cited 567 motorists in the six months from July to December 2013, according to a Virginia State Police news release.
One year ago, the Virginia General Assembly moved this kind of distracted driving into a “primary offense” tier for law enforcement, meaning that a suspicion of texting is enough to get a motorist pulled over in a traffic stop.
The law took effect July 1, 2013. A dozen of the texting charges occurred in the Twin Counties from July to December, according to state police.
A conviction for a first offense can result in a fine of $125 with a second conviction having a fine of $250.
“The trooper must observe the illegal conduct of the vehicle’s operator, thus providing the trooper with reasonable suspicion to initiate a traffic stop on that vehicle,” as state police officials explain it. “Further investigation determines what, if any, offenses the driver will be cited for by the trooper.
“Troopers have the discretion to warn, summons or arrest a violator.”
Law enforcement officials blame distracted drivers for 131 deaths on the roads.
“Driving distracted puts everybody at risk on a highway,” said Col. W. Steven Flaherty, Virginia State Police Superintendent. “According to preliminary data, driver distraction accounted for 20 percent of all fatal traffic crashes on Virginia’s roads in 2013.”
Specifically, the law makes it “unlawful for any person to operate a moving motor vehicle on the highways in the Commonwealth while using any handheld personal communications device.”
It is also illegal to “manually enter multiple letters or text in the device as a means of communicating with another person,” or read any email or text on a mobile device, though that does not apply to looking up a contact’s phone number.
Though police now have the option of charging drivers with the misdemeanor crime, it seems likely that, in many cases, officers would opt for an offense with a tougher penalty, like reckless driving.