Law enforcement officials are uncertain of the effect a year-old West Virginia statute has had on people who persist in using cellphones while driving. But they see with their own eyes that too many motorists scoff at the law - and put themselves and others at risk.
Lt. Michael Baylous, spokesman for the West Virginia State?Police, told our reporter there are no statistics to judge whether the law, which went into effect last July 1, is reducing traffic accidents. As more record-keeping is performed electronically, that will change.
But both state and local law enforcement officials said there still is too much "distracted driving," often because motorists are using cellphones for texting and/or without "hands-free" devices.
Since the law kicked in, Wheeling police have written 65 citations to drivers who were texting and another 187 for cellphone use without hands-free equipment. Ohio County Sheriff Pat Butler said his deputies have handed out tickets for 88 offenses related to cellphone use. That averages nearly one a day in Wheeling and elsewhere in Ohio County. Similar numbers have been recorded by other local police and sheriffs' departments.
Still, Wheeling Deputy Police Chief Martin Kimball said refusal to obey the law is "rampant."
Baylous agreed, saying one State Police trooper told him "if he wrote a citation for every driver he sees talking while driving, he would have difficulty responding to other calls."
No doubt the new law has contributed to a decrease in traffic accidents, State Police Sgt. Shawn Schoolcraft, who handles records, told us. Some drivers, either because of the law or because they finally have wakened up to the danger, have stopped misusing cellphones while behind the wheel.
The danger is very real. During 2012, the most recent year for which federal statistics are available, 3,328 people throughout the country died in accidents caused by distracted driving. Another 421,000 were injured.
As Baylous implied, police and deputies simply cannot spend all their time chasing down distracted drivers. Still, curbing the practice should be viewed as a priority.
"I think probably the only people who are not using their phones while driving are the ones who have gotten a ticket," Kimball commented. If more citations are needed to convince local drivers misusing cellphones is not a good idea, police and deputies should accommodate them.