RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia had recorded 725 convictions during the first six months of a texting-while-driving law, which made the distracted-driving practice a primary offense.
The preliminary numbers from the Department of Motor Vehicles cover a period from July 1 through the end 2013. They show that the majority of the convictions occurred in heavily traveled northern Virginia and the sprawling, densely populated Hampton Roads area, but virtually every county recorded at least one conviction.
A conviction calls for a fine of $125 for the first offense, while subsequent offenses call for a $250 fine.
The DMV numbers, which are subject to revision, show convictions ranging from highs of 168 in Fairfax County and 71 in Virginia Beach to single convictions in many rural counties. They also showed great variation from locality to locality.
Richmond, for instance, had 15 convictions while Roanoke, with half the population, recorded 17.
The AAA Mid-Atlantic lobbied in favor of the legislation, citing statistics that show texting while driving sharply increases the risk of a crash, a spokeswoman said.
"We thought it was critical to send a strong message and do everything we could to stop such a dangerous behavior behind the wheel," auto club spokeswoman Martha Meade said Wednesday.
Polling conducted by AAA shows that the law is having an impact, she said. Nearly one-fourth of 800 registered voters surveyed by the auto club found that they have stopped texting or are texting far less since the law hit the books, Meade said.
"I think common sense dictates that texting while driving is always a dangerous practice," she said.
Drive Smart Virginia has made raising awareness about the perils of distracted driving one of its top priorities, executive director Janet Brooking said.
"What we have always said is it takes education and enforcement to affect change," she said. Drive Smart is part of a diverse coalition promoting distraction-free driving.
Before the texting-while-driving law was passed in the 2013 of the General Assembly, a motorist could not be cited simply for texting, but would have to be stopped for another offense. Now, as a primary offense, police can pull over a driver who is seen texting. The previous fine for texting while driving was $20.
Younger drivers, those between 16 and 19, text the most while at the wheel — about 60 percent. Including all ages, 29 percent of all drivers text while on the road.
The texting-while-driving law isn't the first or the last aimed at keeping drivers' eyes on the road. The current session of the General Assembly includes a bill that would limit the use of cellphones by provisional drivers, who are typically young operators.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap .
Driver Smart Virginia: http://www.drivesmartva.org/