A law banning handheld phone use while driving in Virginia will be enforced starting today.

The law bans motorists from using any handheld personal communications device while driving on Virginia’s roadways, and law enforcement statewide will start cracking down on drivers violating the new law on New Year’s Day.

Gov. Ralph Northam signed the mandate into law in July, making Virginia the 22nd state to ban the use of handheld devices while driving.

Halifax County Sheriff Fred Clark called cell phone usage among drivers a “definite safety concern.”

“Cell phone usage is definitely a distraction while driving. It easily diverts the attention away from the driver and increases the risk of crashes,” Clark said. “According to the National Safety Council, they estimate that 26% of all car crashes involve cell phone usage.”

According to an interactive crash report provided by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, distracted driving on Virginia’s roadways caused 16,782 crashes with 9,302 injuries and 118 fatalities from the timeframe of Jan. 1, 2020 through Dec. 29, 2020.

In Halifax County, the driver’s use of a cell phone was involved in a total of six crashes with five injuries from Jan. 1, 2020 through Dec. 29, 2020, according to an interactive crash report. In that same timeframe, the total number of crashes in Halifax County where a distraction was involved was 55, with 39 injuries.

Texting on a cell phone falls under the definition of distracted driving, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines as “any action that takes your attention away from the task of safe driving.”

“Sending or reading a text, on average, takes your eyes off the road 5 seconds, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,” said Lt. Randy Redd, a spokesman for the South Boston Police Department. “Traveling at 55 miles per hour, it’s like driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed.”

Drivers who violate the new law banning the use of handheld communications devices while behind the wheel will be subject to a $125 fine for the first offense and $250 for each subsequent offense. Violations of the new law that occur in highway work zones also will carry a $250 fine.

“Initially, we are going to encourage our officers to use their discretion when it comes to enforcing the law since it is a new law and give the public time to get used to it,” Redd commented.

The new law only applies to the direct handling of the devices while driving. Motorists may still use their cell phones to make or receive calls while driving through the use of hands-free technology. The new law applies only to drivers operating vehicles in motion. The use of handheld devices is still allowable by drivers who are “lawfully parked or stopped.”

Drivers using a handheld communications device to report an emergency, and the operators of emergency vehicles engaged in “official duties” also are exempt from the new law.

Miranda Baines is a staff writer for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at mbaines@gazettevirginian.com.

Miranda Baines is a staff writer for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at mbaines@gazettevirginian.com.