According to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA), 5,474 people were killed and an estimated 448,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes in 2009 as a result of distracted driving. That same year, West Virginia officials reported nearly 500 accidents caused by drivers using electronic devices. Text-messaging related fatalities continue to dominate headlines and as a result, West Virginia lawmakers and citizens are pressing for change.
According to West Virginia law, texting while driving is a secondary offense – that is, the driver must commit another driving infraction and be stopped and ticketed for that traffic violation before he or she can also be ticketed for texting while drive. But proposed House Bill 2555 would change all that. Under House Bill 2555, anyone operating a motor vehicle while reading, sending or receiving a text message via an electronic communications device could be subject to a misdemeanor conviction and fines. The exceptions to this law apply to law enforcement, emergency services personal and drivers under 18 who have graduated level one and level two permits. The law makes texting while driving a primary offense and affects those who not only use cell phones while driving, but those who use pagers and computers as well.
West Virginia’s legislators had originally sought to ban all handheld device used by drivers, but revised its position because of conflicting data about the risks. Until the introduction of House Bill 2555, West Virginia’s text ban laws only related to minors, or those with learner’s permits. As the House Bill found support, the Mountain State’s Senate also undertook the issue in the form of Senate Bill No. 209. If these bills are enacted, West Virginia will join 30 other states, the District of Columbia, and Guam in banning text messaging for all drivers.
The move by West Virginia lawmakers to draft anti-texting laws for all drivers could be motivated by more than public safety. In 2009, the United States Congress proposed the Avoiding Life-Endangering and Reckless Texting by Drivers Act, also known as the Alert Drivers Act. If enacted, this new law would require all states to ban texting by drivers. Non-compliance would mean that states would lose one-fourth of their federal transportation funds.
More states, including West Virginia, are proposing legislation with specific penalties for motorists who drive and text. While critics challenge whether the risks are real and whether texting bans are effective, loss of human lives and federal monies may be sufficient motivation or more states to enact bans on this dangerous driving behavior.