Most states have laws in place to protect motorists from distracted driving accidents.
Unfortunately, these laws are nearly meaningless without enforcement. Every minute of every day, up to 600,000 Americans are driving while texting. The trouble is, catching and stopping these distracted drivers has proven to be more of a challenge than anyone ever imagined.
The problem is that law enforcement lacks the tools needed to help them find distracted drivers. While there are license plate readers that help police track down stolen vehicles, cameras that help catch speeders and red light runners, etc., police can only use their eyes to spot distracted drivers. What’s more, the law isn’t always clear…texting while driving is illegal, but it’s difficult to prove drivers are actually texting.
Enforcement Requires New Tactics and Better Legislation
In Boston, texting has been illegal for three years now, but it’s taken the police force time to figure out how to enforce this new law effectively. Funded by a $275,000 grant, Boston PD will use unmarked cars parked along the road, unmarked cruisers traveling on multi-lane roads, and plain clothed officers posing as pedestrians at busy intersections to alert patrol cars to offenders.
Yet even if a police officer sees someone texting, that is not enough to issue them in a ticket in many states. The ticketing officer must get a visual confirmation of a digital message exchange from the phone before they can issue a summons.
Officers in California explain that they have to actually see drivers texting or reading messages so they can testify in court if they are called as a witness to the violation. They need to prove that the person was indeed sending or reading a message, not just holding their phone.
Since the burden of proof is on the state or city issuing the citation, many drivers are coming to court to challenge the charges. Drivers are denying the act of messaging and saying they were placing a phone call instead.
While a police officer’s word will usually hold up in court, being able to say with absolute certainty that the driver was texting is extremely challenging. One Phoenix police officer notes that he’s written hundreds of tickets for texting, and only about five have stuck.
Even in the 12 states (including California) where handheld call and text bans are in place, using a phone in a non-communication capacity isn’t banned. Laws in most states are loose enough to give drivers many outs in these situations. It almost even comes down to the honor system in states like California where it isn’t illegal to look up a contact, or to take a picture, or just holding a phone.
This leaves many wondering what it will take to start enforcing texting laws. While some are hopeful that education will stop risky behaviors, others believe a total handheld device ban for drivers is the only way to crack down on texting behind the wheel.