THE STATE'S NEW TEXTING LAW

The days of legally driving while texting in West Virginia are numbered, with a new ban that gradually targets hands-on cell phone chatter becoming law Friday.

The distracted driving measure is among nearly 70 bills passed by the Legislature during this year's regular session taking effect that day.

But law enforcement won't begin pulling over motorists for texting until July 1, under the new law's provisions. While drivers can be cited for hands-on cell phone use as of that date, that violation alone cannot trigger a traffic stop. Hands-on cell phone use becomes a primary offense, one that can get a motorist pulled over, starting in July 2013.

State Police Superintendent Jay Smithers is expecting his officers to apply common sense once enforcement begins, acknowledging the learning curve involved with this law targeting a common but dangerous habit, said Sgt. Mike T. Baylous, a department spokesman.

"Col. Smithers has made it very clear to the troops that he wants them to be reasonable, to use their discretion," Baylous said Wednesday.

In the meantime, the State Police, the Division of Highways, the Department of Health and Human Resources — officials consider this a public health issue — and other agencies will try to inform the public of the approaching ban. This effort will include road signs, speaking to high school students once classes resume in the fall and updating the Division of Motor Vehicles' driver license handbook.

"We'll be utilizing our social media, whether through our Facebook page or Twitter," said Department of Transportation spokesman Brent Walker.

The campaign also will include the safe driver pledge that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has begun promoting among college and high school students and others. It calls on motorists to to avoid distracted driving.

"If you want to stop texting now, we want you to. We aren't condoning texting, ever, so we're hoping people stop tomorrow," Walker said. He also said, "We just know that it's become a part of the fabric of society. We want to put great effort into educating and informing."

At least 39 states ban texting while driving. Nearly 5,500 people across the country were killed in crashes involving driver distraction in 2009 and another 448,000 people were injured, according to the latest figures analyzed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Sixteen percent of all fatal accidents that year involved reports of distracted driving, and teen drivers were more likely than those in other age group to be involved in a fatal crash where distraction is reported, the agency says.