NEW CUMBERLAND - While the dangers of texting and driving may be self-evident, driving while talking on a cellphone is also a no-no in West Virginia.
Most drivers automatically buckle up, but driving without a seat belt is enough to warrant a traffic stop in the Mountain State.
With such laws on the books, law enforcement agencies in Hancock County and elsewhere in the state are boosting their traffic enforcement efforts and starting to see results, officials said.
New Cumberland police Lt. Jeremy Krzys makes a traffic stop on North Chester Street (state Route 2) on a recent weekday as part of the city’s participation in the Governor’s Highway Safety Program. Such stops — for drunken driving, seat belt, speeding and distracted-driver violations — have been on the increase in New Cumberland and elsewhere in Hancock County. (Photo by Stephen Huba)
Both the Hancock County Sheriff's Department and the New Cumberland Police Department are participants in the Governor's Highway Safety Program, which releases federal grant money to them every month for extra enforcement.
The grants cover the overtime costs of officers who volunteer for special enforcement duties in four areas: drunken driving, speeding, driving without a seat belt, and distracted-driver violations (driving while texting or driving while using a cellphone).
"We've got guys out doing this enforcement at all hours of the day," said Hancock County sheriff's Deputy 1st Class Scott Little. "Somebody is out working the (DUI) grant every weekend of the month."
Little is the department's liaison to the Highway Safety Program's regional coordinator in Wheeling, who oversees the disbursement of grant funds on a monthly basis. A six-year participant in the program, the sheriff's department has markedly increased its participation in the past two years, Little said.
In 2013, the sheriff's department received $37,610 in overtime grant money. To date this year, the department already has received $22,000, Little said.
This month, deputies are working the grants in three areas: drunken driving, speeding and seat belt use. In April, they focused on drunken driving, speeding and distracted-driver violations.
The latter have become the focus of greater attention since West Virginia expanded its texting ban in 2013 to include talking on a cellphone while driving. Signs on the highway now read, "Drivers: Hands-Free Communication Devices Only."
Driving without a seat belt, texting while driving, and using a cellphone while driving are all now primary offenses in West Virginia, meaning drivers can be pulled over by officers who observe those violations.
"It takes only a split second for an accident to occur: You've already lost that second by texting and driving," Little said.
Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher said the grants not only improve traffic safety but also boost officer visibility - and "high visibility deters crime."
Deputies who work the grant detail do so outside their normal shift and get paid an overtime wage - time and a half - at no extra cost to the county, Fletcher said. The program means that, in addition to the normal four-man crew per shift, there may be up to four deputies working grant detail at any given time.
"We're being seen more. It does get busy at times for the dispatcher," Little said.
"It frees up the officers assigned to regular duty to concentrate on patrols and calls for service, and to be available to the general public for all other needs," Fletcher said. "Officers out there for the grant can exclusively watch for specific violations. This allows us to put extra officers out to concentrate specifically on traffic enforcement."
While there is no quota system for citations issued, the Highway Safety Program stresses the importance of "proactive enforcement," Little said. That means officers who are working a grant detail are expected to show results, he said.
Deputies working the grant detail made 19 DUI arrests in the first four months of this year, including 11 in March alone, Little said.
The New Cumberland Police Department also is an active participant in the program, garnering several awards for police Lt. Jeremy Krzys for citations issued. It is not uncommon to see Krzys working a grant detail on state Route 2, something that police Chief Lester Skinner encourages.
"I'd say it's essential," Skinner said. "Stopping someone from drinking and driving - that's stuff that needs to be done. In New Cumberland, that's done on a wider basis than most. The grant provides for a lot more service on that kind of stuff."
Skinner said Krzys works his overtime hours according to what grant money is available each month.
"When he gets a cellphone grant, his main job is to watch for people using cellphones. He pulls them over and writes them a ticket," he said.
In addition to overtime funds, the Highway Safety Program also makes federal funds available for the purchase of equipment, Little said.
In 2013, the sheriff's department received $13,383 in equipment - radars, cameras and preliminary breath tests. This year to date, the department has received $13,550 in equipment.