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Driver cellphone, texting ban should sail through, lawmakers say

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia could soon join a growing number of states where it's illegal to send text messages or use a cellphone while driving.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's bill to ban drivers from texting and making cellphone calls should expect smooth sailing in the coming days through House and Senate committees, lawmakers said.  Tomblin's legislation was introduced Tuesday.

"I'm optimistic it will pass," said Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Robert Beach, D-Monongalia. "The direction we're taking is coming from the federal level. Many states are already adopting this."

House Transportation and Roads Committee Chairwoman Margaret Ann Staggers, D-Fayette, said the House has pushed for a cellphone and texting ban for years, but similar legislation has bogged down in the Senate. 

Staggers believes Tomblin's support will give the legislation the push it needs to become law.

"We're optimistic something will happen this year," she said. "This is about responsible driving. All of us need to be paying attention when we're driving at 70 mph down the highway."

Nine states and Washington, D.C., prohibit handheld cellphones while driving, according to the Governor's Highway Safety Association. 

In all but one of those states, law enforcement officers may cite drivers for using a cellphone without any other traffic offense taking place -- also known as "primary enforcement."

Tomblin's bill would treat a cellphone ban violation as a "secondary offense," meaning drivers would have to be pulled over for some other reason before being ticketed. Maryland also treats a cellphone use while driving as a secondary offense.

Lawmakers said Tuesday that any cellphone ban on the books would be a step in the right direction.

"We're losing too many people in accidents that we know could be avoided," said Delegate Nancy Peoples Guthrie, D-Kanawha. "I don't want to lose any more kids, any more parents, any more people."

A violation of Tomblin's proposed ban on text messaging while driving also would be a secondary offense.

According to the Highway Safety Administration, 35 states already prohibit text messaging for drivers, while 32 of those states treat the offense as a primary violation. 

Kentucky, Maryland and Virginia have texting while driving bans. Pennsylvania's texting ban takes affect March 8.

West Virginia law already prohibits "novice drivers" -- those 18 years old and under -- from using a cellphone, and sending and receiving texts.

"I'm delighted we finally have a chief executive [Tomblin] who acknowledges the problem and wants to attack it," Guthrie said. "If you're texting, you're distracted, and you're not paying attention."

Guthrie said she would introduce a similar bill that would prohibit drivers from text messaging in case Tomblin's bill meets any unexpected resistance.

"If his bill sails through, I'll be very happy," she said. "If it gets into trouble, then we'll have another option."

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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