When the police officer asked Theresa Passeretti, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” she said she honestly didn’t know.
Police have been ticketing motorists for driving in highway construction zones while holding a phone, an act that’s now against the law in Virginia. Passeretti, who had been on Colonial Avenue near Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke, said she confessed she didn’t know that it was illegal and asked for a warning.
The officer replied: “If you were to hit one of these workers, they wouldn’t have had a warning,” Passeretti said.
“Kind of made me feel bad,” said Passeretti, who lives in Roanoke.
But the worst part could be paying more than $300 in fines and court costs if convicted.
Since the law took effect July 1, police have enforced the measure to curb distracted driving with determined focus near the college, where three roundabouts and sidewalks are being installed on Colonial.
According to police statistics, as of Tuesday, 22 of 29 people ticketed by city police under the new code section were stopped on that section of Colonial, which carries 8,800 vehicles daily.
The action will soon shift to Roanoke General District Court, where 21 ticket cases are scheduled to be adjudicated on Sept. 9 and Sept. 11, said Rick Kahl, Roanoke’s general district court clerk.
A conviction carries a mandatory $250 fine. With court costs of $71, the total bill would come to $321, Kahl said.
The accused is required to appear in court or send an attorney, Kahl said. An out-of-state resident could ask the court for leeway but, generally, “They want you in court to explain yourself,” he said.
The law, which was approved by the General Assembly this spring, says: “It is unlawful for any person while driving a moving motor vehicle in a highway work zone to hold in his hand a handheld personal communications device.”
It applies 24 hours a day on all roads with a marked construction or maintenance area, whether or not construction crews are present, according to the author of the law, Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg.
The driver of a vehicle legally stopped or parked in a work zone is exempted. So is any driver reporting an emergency, or the driver of any law enforcement or fire vehicle or ambulance on official business, or a corrections vehicle on certain kinds of urgent business.
Mason said he wrote the bill after hearing from highway officials that highway work crews see distracted drivers “all the time.” And yet, cellphones can be inexpensively equipped or come with built-in features for hands-free use, Mason said.
Last year, 2,523 work zone crashes resulting in 1,256 injuries and nine fatalities were reported in the state, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Roanoke police spokeswoman Caitlyn Cline said the department already had been focused on the area around Virginia Western, which has “a history of heavy traffic and numerous citizen complaints.”
“The officers have simply been enforcing the new law in areas they are already patrolling,” she said.
Passeretti recalled why she was on the phone the day of her ticket: “I think I was trying to get a kid to the doctor that day,” she said.
Sue Rice, a Roanoke native who lives in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio, had answered a call from an elderly family member while driving on Colonial.
“Before I could put it on speaker and lay my phone down and have it hands-free, the officer pulled in behind me with the lights flashing and gave me a ticket,” Rice said.
She plans to drive to the Roanoke Valley, a trip of six and a half hours, for her September court date. Her mother lives here and she visits as often as she can, she said.
At Virginia Western, the editor of the faculty and staff bulletin alerted employees to the police ticketing activity last week. Between 3,000 and 5,000 students are due back on campus Monday, with about three more months of Colonial construction still to go, college spokesman Josh Meyer said.
But highway construction and maintenance is a year-round activity, and every week, crews establish dozens of work zones in the Roanoke and New River valleys and nearby communities, marked by orange signs and cones.