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At the WV Legislature: Senate committee advances ‘Electronically Distracted Driving Act’

By Autumn Shelton, WV Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – A bill to help eliminate distracted driving advanced out of the state legislature’s Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Monday. 

This bill, the engrossed committee substitute for HB 2218, which passed the House on Feb. 10, rewrites sections of state code as it relates to the use of stand-alone electronic devices, such as MP3 players and video players, and wireless telecommunication devices, such as cell phones and handheld GPS receivers, while a person is operating a vehicle. 

The bill is also referred to as the “Electronically Distracted Driving Act.” 

Current West Virginia law prohibits drivers from using their cell phones, or other devices, while operating a vehicle. This bill adds to those prohibitions and states that drivers may not hold an electronic device while operating a vehicle, and makes each violation a separate offense.

As explained during the committee meeting, HB 2218 also prevents school bus drivers from using two-way radios and wireless communication devices while students enter or exit a bus, and it prohibits commercial drivers from reaching for a device if they are no longer in a “seated driving position” or properly restrained by a seat belt. 

Upon the first conviction, a driver may receive a fine of no more than $100. Upon a second conviction, a driver may be fined up to $200, and for a third or subsequent conviction, a driver may be fined up to $300, receive three points on their driving record, and have their license suspended for up to 90 days, according to the bill. Convictions are counted if the incident occurred within a 24-month period. 

Should a driver damage property as a result of distracted driving, they may be found guilty of a misdemeanor, be sentenced to up to 30 days in jail, and receive a $100-$500 fine, the bill states. 

If a driver should cause serious physical harm to another person as a result of distracted driving, they may be found guilty of a misdemeanor, be sentenced up to 120 days in jail, receive a $500-$1,000 fine, and have their license revoked for up to one year. 

Lastly, if a driver causes the death of another person as a result of distracted driving, they may be found guilty of negligent homicide and sentenced accordingly. 

Senator Mike Stuart, R-Kanawha

The bill excludes first responders, utility service providers (as long as they are responding to an emergency), commercial vehicle operators using mobile data devices, those who drive vehicles equipped with an automated driving system and those who must use electronic devices for ride-sharing, taxi or limo services. 

Following a question posed by Senator Mike Stuart, R-Kanawha, about whether this bill, and its strike-and-insert amendments, would still allow a charge of reckless driving for any distracted driver, counsel responded that it would.

Senator Michael Oliverio II, R-Monongalia, asked if this bill allowed for the use of smartwatches. Counsel responded that as the bill is written, smartwatches do not fall under the definition of wireless communication devices, and it had been previously determined that it would be difficult for a member of law enforcement to determine if a driver had used a smartwatch. 

For further clarification, Senator Robert Karnes, R-Randolph, asked if any built-in vehicle equipment, like a dashboard GPS device, would be able to be used by a driver under this bill. 

Counsel responded that built-in equipment does not fall under purview of this bill, and could be used. However, she noted that if a driver is using the device in a manner that causes them to be distracted, or in a manner other than “hands-free,” they could be cited for distracted driving. 

Senator Robert Karnes, R-Randolph

The strike-and-insert amendments included in the engrossed committee substitute will be referred to as the “Robin W. Ames Memorial Act.” 

As explained by Karrah Ames, who testified during the meeting, her husband, Robin, was struck and killed by a distracted driver in 2020 as he was cycling near his home in Preston County. 

Ames stated that the driver “admitted” to checking the weather on her phone just before she struck Robin Ames. 

“I implore you to please look at this as a necessary safety tactic for drivers, for pedestrians, for cyclists, for anybody out there on the road,” Ames said. “I can’t begin to tell you all the wonderful things my husband has missed in these last three years.” 

“Something has to be done,” she concluded. 

Jill Rice, president of the West Virginia Insurance Federation, testified that the bill is designed to address situations like Karrah Ames found herself in. 

She cited a study which noted that “drivers take their eyes off the road on average 13 times per day for six seconds at a time, driving at 45 miles per hour.” 

Senator Michael Oliverio II, R-Monongalia

“This is equivalent to traveling the length of a football field,” Rice said, adding that this bill does allow drivers to single-touch or swipe their phone and use Bluetooth. It does not prevent passengers from using their devices. 

Delegate Steve Westfall, R-Jackson, sponsor of the bill, testified that the law currently states that a driver cannot text or talk, but “that’s pretty much it.” 

“I think it’s a very important bill,” Westfall said. “I think it gets this in code, I believe, with 34 other states that have passed this.” 

“If you don’t have the time to pull over to put an address in your phone, you are in too big of a hurry, in my opinion,” Westfall said.

The engrossed committee substitute, with strike-and-insert amendments, of HB 2218 is now headed before the Senate Judiciary Committee for further consideration. 

The committee also advanced engrossed HB 2310, with a strike-and-insert amendment, which would give the Division of Motor Vehicles authority to develop an “Antique Fleet” program for those who own five or more antique motor vehicles. As the bill is written, the owner may use a single registration plate for each vehicle. 

This bill is now headed to the full Senate for consideration.  

Delegate Steve Westfall, R-Jackson