Jan. 3, 2006 The Distracted Driving Act of 2005, covering the use of cell phones while driving, went into effect on Monday, but left many drivers wondering exactly what the bill entails.
Police Commissioner Elton Lewis on Tuesday released a press release to help clarify the situation.
The good news is that residents won't be ticketed immediately for infractions. Lewis said it is customary with new traffic legislation for the V.I. Police Department to launch a public awareness campaign to educate and warn the public prior to issuing citations.
He said he has instructed police officers to begin enforcing the new law by stopping motorists found using handheld mobile phones and advising them of the new law requiring drivers to use a "hands-free device" to make a telephone call while operating a motor vehicle. There will be a 31-day grace period before officers issue citations for violations.
In an effort for the public to understand the new law, he provided the following definitions.
— "Engage in a call" means talking into or listening on a handheld mobile telephone, but does not include holding a mobile telephone to activate, deactivate or initiate a function of the telephone. Herminio Velazquez, deputy chief for the St. Croix district, said this would make it legal to use phones that have the single cable earphone and microphone.
— According to the law, a "hands-free device" means an attachment, add-on, built-in feature or addition to a mobile telephone, which when used, allows the user to engage in a call without the use of either hand, whether or not the use of either hand is necessary to activate, deactivate or initiate a function of the mobile telephone.
— The law also states that school bus drivers carrying passengers may not use a mobile telephone or other electronic device — including a device with hands-free accessories — while the school bus is moving; except to place an emergency call to school officials or to an emergency response agency.
— Drivers with a learner's permit may not use any mobile telephone or other electronic device — including a device with hands-free accessories — while operating a motor vehicle on a public street or highway, except in an emergency.
— A claim that a driver is just holding a cell phone to his or her ear without anyone being on the other end will not be an excuse. The law says, "An operator of a motor vehicle who holds a mobile telephone to, or in the immediate proximity of his ear while the vehicle is in motion is presumed to be engaging in a call."
And what will infractions cost? A violator will be fined not less than $25 but not more than $100 on a first offense. On a second offense, however, violators would be fined not less than $50 but not more than $200. The person who is at fault three or more times within a three-year period shall be fined not less than $100 or more than $500 and may have his or her driver's license suspended for a period not to exceed one year.
Lewis encouraged residents to abide by the new law and to take steps to obtain the proper "hands-free devices" for their mobile phones. He asked the public for its cooperation and stated that his officers would strictly enforce the new law once the 31-day grace period is over.
Concerning the possible controversy over the new law, Lewis added that "his job was to enforce the law, not make them."
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