19 states, the District of Columbia and Guam have already enacted bans on texting while driving. West Virginia is poised to add itself to that list. The West Virginia legislature originally sought to ban all hand-held cellphone use while driving, as California, Connecticut, D.C., New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington have done. The legislature ultimately decided to pursue a texting ban alone after being advised that the data linking hand-held cellphone use to accidents is conflicting. However, the dangers of texting while driving are clear enough to support a ban.
Currently, texting while driving in West Virginia is classified as a secondary offense. This means that law enforcement can only cite citizens for distracted driving if they have already been pulled over for some other offense, such as speeding or failing to signal. The new bills, one being debated in the Senate and one being debated in the House, seek to make writing, reading or sending a text message while driving a primary offense. This change would allow law enforcement to pull drivers over simply because they are caught texting, even if they are not engaging in any other problematic behavior. If caught texting while driving, drivers will most likely face a $100 fine.
The only drivers who are currently banned from texting while driving in West Virginia are those novice drivers who have a Level 1 or Level 2 status. This ban generally only affects the majority of the population of drivers under the age of 18. Others banned from texting while driving are those federal employees and commercial truck drivers who are banned from the practice by federal rather than state law.
Distracted driving is a remarkably widespread problem. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that roughly 80 percent of all crashes and 65 percent of near crashes involve distracted driving. There are three forms of distraction:
- Visual: when a driver takes his/her eyes off the road, whether that be for an instant to turn the radio or significantly longer to do more involved tasks like reading a text message.
- Manual: when a driver takes one or both of his/her hands off the wheel and/or stick shift to engage in an activity not immediately relevant to the task of driving.
- Cognitive: when a driver takes his/her mind off the immediate task of driving. This type of distraction is often caused by fatigue or strong emotions.
Hand-held cellphone use generally and texting specifically involves all three types of distraction. Partially due to the fact that cellphone use while driving reduces the amount of brain activity associated with attentive driving by 37 percent, an astounding number of accidents have occurred as a result of distracted driving. For example, in 2008 nearly 6,000 fatalities and more than 500,000 injuries occurred in accidents involving a distracted driver.
West Virginia is not immune to the general problem of distracted driving or the more specific concern of distraction caused by electronic devices. In 2009, nearly 500 accidents in West Virginia were linked to distraction caused by an electronic device. This statistic is particularly problematic, given the evidence that the percentage of drivers, especially young drivers, who use electronic devices while driving is increasing. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that in 2008, 11 percent of all drivers were using a hand-held cellphone at any given moment during daylight hours. This percentage was up significantly from 2007.
Though states have generally not imposed additional penalties on drivers who injure or kill others as a result of distracted driving beyond the traditional civil and criminal penalties for vehicular crimes, the breadth of the distracted driving problem may warrant consideration of such penalties in the future. For now, the relatively simple act of banning texting while driving is still being debated in West Virginia and in many of the 30 other states that have not yet enacted a ban.
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If you or someone you care about has been injured in an accident involving a distracted driver, please contact an experienced personal injury attorney. A lawyer can investigate your circumstances, answer any questions you may have, and explain your legal rights and options.