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Texting while driving will present a myriad of challenges for law enforcement.
Tuesday, July 2, 2013
As Virginia law enforcement officers begin peering into cars in search of attention-grabbing screens and busy thumbs, police say the state's new law could be challenging to enforce with certainty.
Drivers in Virginia spotted texting while operating a moving vehicle can be stopped by law enforcement officers for that action alone, a change that took effect Monday. The state's old law, which had been in place since 2009, dictated that drivers could only be cited for texting if officers pulled them over for another moving violation.
The shift to a primary law - the type of violation that allows officers to stop a driver - is accompanied by increased fines. Texting while driving now carries a fine of $125 for first-time offenders, up from $20, and subsequent offenses will cost $250.
But it also comes with the new challenge of identifying drivers who are violating the law without drawing attention by speeding or driving recklessly.
Sgt. Tim Wyatt, traffic coordinator for Roanoke County police, said the enhanced law should aid the cause of discouraging distracted driving. The 21-year veteran of the department said texting while driving was like a passenger intermittently covering a driver's eyes.
"If you are texting and reading your emails going down the road, I don't care if you are between the lines or weaving, you need to be stopped and you need to be given a ticket," Wyatt said.
Still, he said, the department is reminding officers to be sure of what they saw before writing a ticket - a level of certainty that will be harder to achieve with this violation.
Officers must consider a variety of factors and exceptions to the law.
The law bans the manual typing of a message and the reading of any message or email, but leaves other possible uses of a phone within the legal realm. Wyatt said officers will need to observe drivers closely to be sure possible violators aren't making phone calls, changing their music or using GPS systems - all legal activities.
Officers can stop the driver on mere suspicion, he said, but will give drivers an opportunity to explain. If an officer isn't sure a message was being composed or read, the driver won't receive a ticket and likely won't see his or her phone searched, at least in Roanoke County.
"It comes down to officer discretion," Wyatt said. "We are advising our people that they are not to be laying hands on people's phones."
Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said all law enforcement officers have the option of asking a driver to see their phone, but the driver may decline and require the officer to obtain a warrant.
Wyatt said warrants will likely not be sought for cellphones in Roanoke County, as they are typically not pursued for an average traffic stop. Officers are being encouraged to avoid writing tickets if they find themselves in gray areas.
Roanoke police Capt. Monti Lee said the city's officers are trained to carefully observe drivers using their phones, so in the case of a violation a solid charge can be presented in court.
"We want the officers and the charges they bring to be strong in their descriptions, of the manipulation of the phones," Lee said.
He said officers will watch for extended phone use that would signal some activity beyond dialing a number, since phone calls are not prohibited.
Among the law's other mitigating factors is a provision that allows drivers to use their phones in any fashion if they are lawfully stopped, including at red lights.
Geller said officers statewide eventually may receive more detailed training on the best practices for noticing and correcting this often indistinct behavior. But that training, she said, has yet to be devised. The task of creating the training program has been assigned to the state's Department of Criminal Justice Services.
Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, will sit on the committee developing a curriculum. She said the training would likely be administered through local and independent police academies.
"We do want to ensure that the instruction we give to our officers is clear and promotes best practices for fairly enforcing this law across the commonwealth," Schrad said. "There are other dangerous driving behaviors, such as weaving, tailgating, driving too slow or too fast, or neglecting to signal a turn, that are more easily observed by officers than texting."
Until then, Wyatt said, officers will look for some tell-tale signs, such as the use of both hands to hold a phone.
"You can see somebody looking down," he said. "And if it's more than a split-second peek, you can usually tell what they are doing."
Staff writer Jeff Sturgeon contributed information to this report.
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