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Tickets for texting a tough call for police

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A law that went into effect July 1 allows police to pull drivers over for texting behind the wheel. Find out how it's working locally.

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

It’s easy to conceive of a worst-case scenario incident involving a texting motorist on the winding roads of the Twin Counties.
Imagine you’re a driver following the recommended safe speed northbound on curvy U.S. 52 near the gravel quarry in Poplar Camp.
While you’re acting like a responsible driver, a Mustang zooms up from behind and rides your bumper.
Glancing in your rearview mirror, it’s apparent that the reckless driver behind you is multitasking, holding up his phone over the steering wheel and paying more attention to it than the road.
The Mustang is tailgating so close you can see his thumb seeking out each letter and the youth mouthing the words he types.

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If that motorist gets any more distracted, the Mustang is likely to crash into the left rear of your vehicle as it goes around the sharp curves, causing you to skid off into the creek on the right and the at-fault vehicle to carom into the rock embankment at the left.
You can see it in your mind’s eye...
But, in the end, would law enforcement officials even charge the motorist in this premise with texting while driving, considering that this may be difficult to prove in court?
Or would the investigating officer opt for the citation with the harsher penalty, like reckless driving?
Police from the Twin Counties confirm that they’ve written few texting-while-driving tickets since the law went into effect July 1 in Virginia.
The Virginia General Assembly found earlier this year that texting behind the wheel posed enough of a threat to public safety to pass a law banning sending messages while driving.
According to the proposal, made by chief patron Sen. George Barker of Alexandria, “It is unlawful for any person to operate a moving motor vehicle on the highways in the Commonwealth while using any handheld personal communications device to:"
• Manually enter multiple letters or text in the device as a means of communicating with another person.
• Read any email or text message transmitted to the device or stored within the device, provided that this prohibition shall not apply to any name or number stored within the device nor to any caller identification information.”
Legislators set the fine for a first offense texting-while-driving conviction at $125 and a second offense at $250, according to the state law.

Hillsville
Reports indicated that 20 percent of all vehicle crashes that happened last year in Virginia resulted from distracted driving, including motorists texting and speaking on their phones, Hillsville Police Chief Greg Bolen said.
The numbers put that total at 1,700 collisions caused while people were using their phones while operating a motor vehicle.
Telltale signs of a distracted driver include people looking into their laps while driving, holding their phone over the steering wheel or swinging out of their lane.
The chief sees these kinds of driving behavior all the time.
Knowing the new law was going into effect back in June, Bolen said he started watching for texting-while-driving while on foot patrol and in his patrol car.
He could pick out people texting behind the wheel about four times a day in Hillsville.
“It’s not really that difficult to spot them,” Bolen noted. “If instead of looking ahead they’re looking down. It’s kind of a giveaway.”
The results of this informal survey raised concerns about distracted driving and the approach of the new school year with the additional traffic headed to town.
(Despite the regularity with which people text behind the wheel, the Hillsville chief knew of no citations being issued for such a moving violation, so far.)
Knowing that more students and adults will be on the road — and possibly texting — when school starts, town police will launch a traffic safety campaign Aug. 13.
“The reason we want to do this is for highway safety,” Bolen said. “We’re not out to just ticket people... we’re looking to just save lives.”
Drivers can use their cell phones to report emergencies without threat of being charged under the new law.
The texting law does not apply to operators who text while their vehicle is parked or stopped, nor those drivers using GPS devices.
It does not apply to emergency responders or police while pursuing their responsibilities.
But, given the data, texting while on the move is just not safe, Bolen said. He has ordered his officers to not text while driving.

Grayson County
“Our deputies are always on the lookout for drivers texting while driving,” Grayson Sheriff Richard Vaughan said.
He wants the public to know about the dangers of distracted driving, but acknowledges the texting law is difficult for police officers to enforce.
“When passing a motorist that appears to be looking at a cell phone, it is very hard to ascertain if they are actually pressing more than a single button to make or terminate a call, which is permitted by Virginia law, or if they are actually texting,” Vaughan said in an email to The Gazette.
If an officer does observe a driver looking at or tapping their phone, they can develop probable cause to pull over a vehicle, as texting while driving is now a primary offense in Virginia.
But, the sheriff said, this assumes the person who is allegedly texting doesn’t see the officer and put their phone aside.
Vaughan advises that the law also applies to texting while pulled up to a stoplight or sign.
Deputies also have the option of bypassing a texting charge and going with a code section with tougher fines, like reckless driving.
“If the operator of a vehicle is texting while driving and they run off the road or swerve over the center line, we would favor the charge with the more severe penalty,” Vaughan said.
While Vaughan is aware that some states are considering laws that would allow police to check out the driver’s cell phones after a crash without getting a search warrant, that is not yet the plan in Virginia.
Drivers need to understand the possible dangerous consequences of distracted driving.
“We need to do everything we can to get the word out to everyone about the dangers of texting while driving, especially to teenage drivers, and hopefully the parents will reinforce this, as well,” Vaughan said.

Galax
Although texting while driving has been an issue in the Galax city limits, police officers haven’t seen much action as a result of this law being passed yet.
“I am not aware that we have charged anyone yet,” Police Chief Rick Clark told The Gazette in an email.
However, Clark did confirm that the lack of arrests isn’t because of a lack of a problem in the area. “I am confident that [texting] has caused accidents in this area,” he said. “It’s probably too early now to determine the impact.”