By Joe Beck
Winchester police have gone on the offensive against drivers who text while driving since a new law took effect July 1, while law enforcement officials in other jurisdictions report little or no difference in their enforcement actions.
Winchester began Tuesday assigning officers in undercover sport utility vehicles to look for drivers who are texting while driving.
Before July 1, drivers were subject to ticketing only if an officer discovered they had been texting in connection with another offense that led to a traffic stop.
Now they will be issued a ticket only for being seen texting while behind the wheel. The law does not apply to a driver who is legally parked or stopped. A first offense carries a fine of $125. A second offense imposes a $250 fine.
Lauren Cummings, a spokeswoman for the Winchester police, said police have issued tickets and warnings since the law took effect, although the exact number is hard to determine before the end of the month.
"There have been a handful of tickets written and the same with warnings," Cummings said, adding that, "we are continuing the undercover operations."
Sheriff's offices in Warren County and Shenandoah County reported no changes in their traffic patrols as a result of the new law. Woodstock Police Chief Eric Reiley also said his department was conducting its normal patrols.
Shenandoah County Maj. Scott Proctor said deputies are always on the lookout for distracted or reckless driving, whether or not the driver is using a handheld device.
"That statute can be difficult to enforce," Proctor said, referring to the texting and driving ban. "You have to observe the violator, and you may not always be in the right place at the right time."
Proctor urged drivers to find a place to safely pull off the road if they want to use a cell phone or other hand-held device for texting or emailing.
"We caution people don't drive distracted. Be safe," Proctor said.
Reiley said motorists can be ticketed for distracted driving if they are trying to change radio stations, and their vehicle begins swerving.
"I haven't scheduled any project initiatives targeting this particular violation," Reiley said of texting while driving. "Obviously, our officers are out every day monitoring driving behavior."
Commentators on the Shenandoah County Sheriff's Office Facebook page have blasted the law for exempting federal, state and local law enforcement officers from its provisions.
Proctor said he has not seen the comments and would not comment until reading them.
Reaction on the Winchester police Facebook page has been more mixed and subdued, although a few commentators were also skeptical of the exemption for law enforcement.
"We don't write the laws," Cummings said. "That is up to the lawmakers, and it is our role to simply enforce those laws."
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org