Distracted driving is a dangerous and deadly habit on America’s roadways.

Distracted driving is a dangerous and deadly habit on America’s roadways.

Distracted driving is a dangerous and deadly habit on America’s roadways.

"Distracted driving is a dangerous and deadly habit on America's roadways."

With these words, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood introduced the first-everederal guidelines for reducing distracted driving.

Nearly 50,000, or 5%, specifically involved the use of an electronic devise.  The new guidelines, issued in February, 2012, are the first attempt to address this growing threat.

February's guidelines are directed at manufacturers of "light" vehicles--cars, pick-up trucks, SUV's and minivans. For the most part, the guidelines encourage manufacturers to reduce the amount of time drivers are required to spend operating devices within the vehicle.  In addition, they encourage manufacturers to disable certain devices except while the vehicle is in park.

Another set of guidelines, known as phase II, will address cell phones, tablets, and other technologies that are not actually a part of the vehicle. It's not clear when the phase II guidelines will be issued. Some states, however, are taking action now. According to the Governor's Highway Safety Association, 19 states already have enacted some form of legislation banning cell phone use while driving. Texting while driving is banned in 37 states.

Just last week, West Virginia joined their ranks.  SB 211, which passed by overwhelming majorities, tackles both texting and cell phone use.  Governor Tomblin supported the legislation and has promised to sign it.  When the new law takes effect on July 1, 2012, it will be illegal to text while driving.  This will be a primary offense--meaning that a driver can be pulled over specifically for that offense.  Cell phone use will also be illegal.  However, this will be a secondary offense until July 1, 2013.  Thus, for the first year, police officers will not be able to pull drivers over or issue tickets solely for cell phone use.

These are all steps in the right direction.  West Virginia should be applauded for addressing the issue of distracted driving so aggressively.  After all, one of the primary purposes of our legal system is to provide for public safety.  The law must keep pace with technology.  Where, as here, the misuse of a new technology poses a clear threat to our safety on the highways, the Legislature must act.  To its credit, that's exactly what our Legislature did.

But that's not the end of the story.  The new legislation will only be effective if there's proper enforcement.   Police officers must be willing to issue tickets to violators regardless of the outcry that may come from a small, vocal minority.  Prosecutors must treat these cases with the seriousness they deserve.  And, where appropriate, judges must impose the authorized fines.   Without enforcement, SB 211 will be reduced to nothing more than ink on a page.  But if all of our law enforcement officials do their part, we'll begin to see a change in driving behavior that will make West Virginia's highways a little bit safer for all of us.