With school officially back in session, the Hillsville Police Department wants teenagers to know it will be enforcing a new state law banning texting while driving.
The new law went into effect July 1 in Virginia and prohibits drivers from texting in any communications device. It also bans drivers from reading any email or text message in a handheld device while driving. A violation is a traffic infraction punishable by a fine of $125 for the first offense, and $250 for all subsequent offenses.
“We are going to be out enforcing this and we are trying to draw awareness to it because last year 20 percent of accidents in Virginia were a result of distracted driving - that is texting and cell phone usage,” Hillsville Police Chief Greg Bolen said. “With school starting back, there is going to be more traffic on the roads and generally people think younger people are going to be texting more when they are driving. There have been several wrecks through the years with teenagers and fatalities because of texting and driving. If we can prevent one accident with this enforcement action, it will be worth it.”
Bolen said his department is working to set up a program at Carroll County High School with some of the elective classes to increase awareness of the issue to students. He also hopes to have messages delivered across the P.A. system on the daily announcements.
“We just want to let them know this is a primary law now and that we are going to be taking enforcement action with it,” Bolen said. “It is not a money making thing. It is a lifesaving thing.”
With the new law, Bolen said an officer only needs to see a driver texting to have probable cause to pull a vehicle over. The law applies to texting, email and all forms of social media while driving. Simply looking at your phone to view a text message while driving is now grounds for a ticket.
“If you are driving, it still applies,” said Bolen. “If it was up to me I would ban all handheld devices. A cellphone is just as distracting as anything. Everybody is guilty of using their cellphones while driving.”
To get an idea of how much texting while driving is a distraction to drivers, Bolen said he recently interviewed four people, two rising seniors at Carroll County High School and two adults, one male and one female.
“I asked them what they thought about us increasing the enforcement action and I got mixed reviews. Every one of them, especially the younger kids, agreed it was a big problem, and probably more awareness would be a good thing, but maybe not the enforcement action,” Bolen said. “They said they all had close calls (near accidents while texting and driving). I have yet to interview anyone who hasn’t had a close call.”
Stopping texting while driving benefits everyone, Bolen said, including police officers who have vehicles stopped on the side of the road.
“If we are on side of the road and somebody is texting, that poses a risk to us as well as the driver,” Bolen said. “The main focus is just to raise awareness and help with highway safety. I have a fondness for those kids over there at the high school, and we want to do everything we can do to protect them.”
Additionally, Bolen said his department would be helping with traffic flow the first week or two of school at Carroll County Middle School and CCHS. Because of the new grade structure of students in grades 6-8 at CCMS and the addition of the ninth grade at CCHS, traffic flow will increase with more students and teachers.
“Woodlawn School is closed, so it’s bringing all that traffic into Hillsville. Plus, there will be more students at the high school now with the addition of the ninth grade,” Bolen said. “The first week of school we will be out very visible in the school zones trying to monitor this traffic.”