TOPICS > Nation

Enforcement of Texting-While-Driving Bans Proves a Tough Task

BY Talea Miller  October 1, 2009 at 3:46 PM EST

Texting while driving; Flickr photo

New laws banning texting while driving went into effect in Maryland and Arkansas on Thursday, as the federal government announced new moves to prevent the habit.

The U.S. Department of Transportation sought to highlight the risks of texting behind the wheel at a two-day summit this week, reporting new data that nearly 6,000 people were killed and 500,000 were injured last year in crashes connected to driver distraction, often by mobile devices and cell phones.

At the conclusion of the summit Thursday, the Obama administration announced it is directing all federal employees not to text while driving on official business or in government vehicles.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also said his department will consider banning texting entirely for truck and interstate bus drivers and encouraged states to continue passing laws against distracted driving.

A total of 18 states and the District of Columbia have made texting while driving illegal, most over the past year.

But enforcement of the statutes has proven challenging. Minnesota was one of the first states to pass a driving-while-texting law, which has now been in effect for more than a year. While the state doesn’t keep data on the number of citations issued for the specific offense, Lt. Matt Langer of the Minnesota State Patrol acknowledges it can be difficult to prove.

“We certainly aren’t ever going to eliminate all the texting that goes on behind the wheel because it’s such a prolific part of our culture now,” said Langer. “But the statute is clear and it does give our troopers great authority to enforce it when they witness this behavior.”

An officer witnessing the infraction, or a driver who volunteers the information after being pulled over, are two of the main ways the citations are issued. Troopers can request phone usage records, but Langer said that option is usually only used in cases of serious accidents causing property damage or injury.

Nearly a quarter of Minnesota’s vehicular accidents are caused by distractions, a broad category that includes phone use, texting and activity going on in the car.

Langer said for the texting ban, the “ultimate goal is voluntary compliance,” as the laws help educate the public on the risks of distracted driving.

“The law enforcement community understands we are only reaching the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

In Tennessee, the texting ban has been in effect for three months, but no citations have been issued yet, according to Mike Browning, spokesperson for Tennessee’s Department of Safety.

He said enforcement is particularly difficult because use of hand held phones while driving is still legal in the state.

“Motorists are still allowed to dial on a mobile phone and we have to clearly witness them texting or reading the mobile device in order to issue a citation,” said Browning.

In California, where talking on a hand held cell phone is prohibited, along with texting, the number of texting tickets given out by the California Highway Patrol pales in comparison to normal phone usage violations.

Just over 1,060 texting citations were issued from January to August of this year, during which 139,000 cell phone citations were issued.

The fine for texting while driving can also vary widely state by state. In Tennessee it is a $50 ticket, while in Washington and California the final fee is more than $120.

Washington state’s texting legislation poses a challenge for law enforcement there because the law categorizes texting while driving as a secondary offense, so officers can’t pull over a driver unless there are exhibiting dangerous driving behaviors. Since that law went into effect in January of 2008, Washington state patrol officers have recorded 720 contacts with drivers for texting, 274 of those received tickets for texting while driving.

Sgt. Freddy Williams, public information officer for the Washington State Patrol, said there is work to be done in all states that have texting bans on how the information on these types of citations is reported and tracked.

Many safety groups have urged a nationwide ban on using mobile devices while behind the wheel.

But Jaime Coffee, of the California Highway Patrol, said a federal law may not even be enough able to break some people of their texting habits.

“I think a lot of people, once they get a first ticket don’t do it again, but some people just aren’t willing to give it up,” said Coffee.