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In the first six months since a new Virginia law made texting while driving a primary offense that now carries a hefty fine, Fairfax County leads the state in convictions, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

During the 2013 Virginia General Assembly session, legislators amended Code of Virginia 46.2-1078.1 to make it a primary offense to text while driving. A violation of this new law is now a punishable traffic infraction. For the first offense, there is a fine of $125 and for second and subsequent offenses the fine doubles to $250. The law applies to the operator of a passenger vehicle in motion and exempts law enforcement and other first responders.

According to the DMV, there have been a total of 725 convictions, broken down by county, from when the law went into effect on July, 1, 2013, through Dec. 31, 2013.

A large number of these convictions, 168, is attributed to Fairfax County by the DMV.

“This new law is certainly helping, but we still have a long way to go,” said Capt. Susan Culin, commander of the Fairfax County Police Traffic Division. “Enhanced penalties for texting are certainly a step in the right direction, but what would really help law enforcement would be laws that would eliminate the ability of drivers to hold a cellphone at all while operating a vehicle. Officers have a difficult time telling what exactly a driver is doing with a phone in their hand.”

According to Culin, Fairfax County police registered 83 of the 168 convictions cited by the DMV. “I’m not exactly sure how the DMV compiled their numbers, but the remaining convictions are likely attributed to other Fairfax County law enforcement agencies such as the Town of Herndon, Fairfax City and Town of Vienna police, as well as Virginia State Police who issued summons within the county,” she said.

Statewide, Virginia State Police have issued nearly 600 citations for the violation in the same six-month reporting period.

Troopers say that since the law went into effect, they have been enforcing it like any other primary offense. The trooper must observe the illegal conduct of a vehicle’s operator, thus providing the trooper with reasonable suspicion to make a traffic stop. Further investigation then determines what, if any, offenses the driver will be cited for, they say. Troopers then have the discretion to warn, summons or arrest a violator.

“Driving distracted puts everybody at risk on a highway,” said Col. W. Steven Flaherty, Virginia State Police superintendent. “According to preliminary data, driver distraction accounted for 20 percent of all fatal traffic crashes on Virginia’s roads in 2013. That accounts for 131 lives lost last year because of a driver failing to pay attention while behind the wheel of a vehicle.”

In addition, state legislators during the 2013 session also established Code of Virginia 46.2-341.20.5.

This law prohibits anyone from texting while driving a commercial vehicle or a vehicle used to transport between nine and 15 passengers. The law does permit “texting when necessary to communicate with law enforcement or other emergency services.” Another related law, Code of Virginia 46.2-919.1, prohibits the use of any wireless telecommunications devices by school bus drivers.

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com