The warning period for driving and holding a cellphone in Harrisonburg appears to be coming to end, according to data obtained from a Freedom of Information Act request.

On Jan. 1, it became illegal in Virginia to hold an electronic device and drive at the same time.

In the first quarter of 2021, city officers issued 61 citations, while Rockingham County Sheriff’s deputies issued six.

In January, Harrisonburg Police Department officers issued six citations. That number jumped to 17 in February and 38 in March.

“We’re starting to do more enforcement with ticketing,” said Lt. Chris Monahan. “Everybody should be aware of it at this point.”

Harrisonburg police placed electronic signs throughout the Friendly City informing drivers of the soon-to-be law in late 2020.

“We had a heavy education push back in December,” Monahan said, adding that the education process is ongoing. “We’re handing out flyers to not just violators, but to people on other traffic stops.”

He said flyers are in English and Spanish.

Monahan also said the increase in tickets is also a result of more traffic. He said warmer weather combined with eased COVID-19 restrictions have brought people outside of their homes more frequently.

“There are more vehicles on the roadway,” he said. “It makes it all the more important to take actions to violators to reduce traffic crashes.”

Monahan said those struggling to stop using their cellphones should install applications that prevent use while driving or place the devices out of reach while driving.

For years, DRIVE SMART Virginia pushed state legislators to prohibit drivers from using cellphones.

According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, 15% of fatalities in car crashes were caused by distracted driving. It’s unclear how many of those were attributed to cellphone use.

Violators face a $125 fine for the first offense and $250 for each subsequent offense. Violation of the law in a work zone is an automatic $250 fine, even if it’s the driver’s first offense.

Exceptions to the law include people using devices when a vehicle is parked or stopped, emergency personnel engaged in work-related duties or drivers calling in an emergency.

In 2009, Virginia banned texting while driving, but made it a secondary offense, meaning an officer couldn’t make a traffic stop for texting while driving unless there was another offense, such as speeding.

In 2013, legislators made the law a primary offense, meaning an officer could stop a vehicle without any other reason if the driver was seen texting while driving.

DRIVE SMART Virginia then shifted its focus toward banning cellphone use altogether while driving.

Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson said his department has issued two citations in each of the first three months this year.

Hutcheson said he has given his deputies the ability to use their discretion to determine whether to issue a warning or citation. Based on the numbers, he said, it’s clear they’re still in the warning phase.

“I’m sure we’ve had a good number of warnings,” he said. “It’s still a new law. Old habits are hard to break.”

Contact Pete DeLea at 574-6267 or Follow Pete on Twitter @pdelea_DNR

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