WJTV News Channel 12 - Few tickets issued in early goings of "tough to enforce" texting

Few tickets issued in early goings of "tough to enforce" texting while driving law

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Since the state's newest texting while driving law took effect July 1, few tickets have been written for it here in Southwest and Central Virginia.  Local authorities say the law is good in nature and a "step in the right direction", but they admit it's been tough to enforce.

"Good legislation, many times, takes several years to actually reach the form where it's most effective," said Roanoke City Commonwealth's Attorney Don Caldwell.

The law makes texting while driving a primary offense -- meaning officers can pull you over if they catch you doing it.  It also dramatically increases the penalties / fines for violators.

WSLS 10 checked in with several police departments across the viewing area to see how many citations they've issued in the early goings of the law.  The following numbers reflect the period from July 1 - July 7:

Roanoke Police: 0 tickets

Vinton Police: 0 tickets

Salem Police: 0 tickets

Christiansburg Police: 0 tickets

Lynchburg Police: 0 tickets

Roanoke County Police: 2 tickets

"Everybody is kind of war gaming this right now," said Caldwell.  "I think you'll see more charges written as time goes on, but I'm not surprised there have been very few only three weeks into it."

Sgt. Tim Wyatt, who oversees the Roanoke County Police Department traffic unit, says both of the tickets his agency issued were written by officers in unmarked cars -- which highlights one of the problems they've run into.

He says unlike speeding, where officers can use a radar gun to clock drivers long before they see a police car, officers have no way to see a cell phone from far away.  By the time a driver gets close enough, he says they've already spotted the officer and put the phone away.

Then there's the issue of determining whether a driver is actually breaking the law.  Caldwell points out though it bans texting, the law still allows drivers to dial a number or use their phone as a GPS device.

"It's going to present some problems for prosecution because it is a traffic infraction and it does require proof beyond a reasonable doubt," said Caldwell.

Getting that proof, he says, may require a forensic evaluation of the phone, which you need a search warrant to do.

"Quite frankly, that's going to tax the resources of most police departments and Commonwealth's Attorneys when the ultimate outcome would be a fine," said Caldwell.

Still, there are some areas where he thinks the law can be effective -- like when a person who texting while driving causes a wreck that seriously injures or kills someone.

"[The law] will enhance the type of penalty that the person will be exposed to," said Caldwell.

He also says the threat of being pulled over may help deter some drivers from texting behind the wheel.

DRIVE SMART Virginia, a traffic safety advocacy group that supported the legislation, is also weighing in on the lack of citations issued so far.  Executive Director Janet Brooking wrote in a statement to WSLS 10:

"Studies show that texting while driving increases crash risk by 2300%. This is a dangerous driving behavior and we are delighted at the measures the General Assembly took this year to strengthen the existing law. We understand that the law enforcement community is currently developing training tools to address appropriate enforcement strategies and we look forward to those being communicated throughout the Commonwealth. The bottom line is that texting while driving is against the law in Virginia. It's a primary offense that is associated with steep fines. If you text while driving, make the commitment now to change your behavior and help us all enjoy safer roadways."

Note: WSLS 10 also reached out to Virginia State Police for its numbers.  A spokesperson says that data is compiled quarterly and would not be available until the fall.














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