Commonwealth Journal

March 11, 2013

Texting laws proving tough to enforce

By CHRIS HARRIS, CJ Staff Writer
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —  

Somerset Police have a message for distracted drivers: Whatever you do, don’t cause danger on the road.
Recent reports out of Kentucky suggest that texting while driving isn’t the easiest on-road offense to prosecute. However, that’s not a problem local law enforcement officials have had — mainly because it’s not one they try to prosecute that often.
“We have not issued a lot” of citations for texting while driving, noted Lt. Shannon Smith of the Somerset Police Department (SPD). “We have issued a lot of warnings.”
In 2010, Kentucky legislators passed a law making it effectively illegal to use the text message function of mobile phones while driving a vehicle. Interestingly, this applied only to texting — other functions, such as using the phone’s Internet capabilities or even other writing-based uses (like sending an email or updating a social media page) are still considered legal.
This has presented a problem for law enforcement around the state, according to a story from the Associated Press. The story cites a report from the Louisville Courier-Journal stating that 909 charges that have been brought across the state since the law passed, and that 25 percent of those charges were dismissed, with only a 63 percent conviction rate for prosecutors.
In Jefferson County, stated the AP report, nearly 40 percent of texting-while-driving charges were dismissed by judges.
Police officers say it's difficult to determine whether a driver is illegally texting or using their phone for any number of other legal activities, such as to browse the Internet, update social media or get directions. Prosecutors say even then, the charge is hard to prove, according to the AP.
Smith, however, said that he doesn’t “know of any prosecution issues we’ve had with it,” though that may have to do with the type of citations police are actually giving out.
“Most of our citations that have come as a result of texting have come in the form of reckless or careless driving (charges),” said Smith. “... What we have to look at is, texting may be illegal and dialing may not be, but crossing the center lane still is, regardless of the root cause. 
“Even if you’re just reaching over to change the radio station, there’s nothing illegal about that, but it cannot lead to you crossing the center line or missing a red light or a stop sign,” he added. “Those things are still against the law. We may not know why you ran a red light or crossed the road ... but the end result is what it is. We can still proceed with careless or reckless driving (charges).”
Rather than citations that would end up in court, Somerset Police have mostly “issued a lot of warnings” for instances where a person may be using their phone while driving.
“Being able to differentiate between dialing and texting isn’t easy,” said Smith. “(Officers) will which a person over a period of time. It’s not that you can get behind them and look through the back glass and tell exactly what they’re doing (but) officers will observe them. It’s very ease on U.S. 27 to stay beside somebody and keep a watchful eye over them.”
Of course, Smith noted that officers need to be mindful of their own driving while doing this and “not creating more of a problem.”
Smith said that all cruisers are equipped with video cameras that help document the reason for a traffic stop. “If questions are ever raised in court, we can back up our claims with video evidence,” he noted, specifically referring to reckless driving cases.
Whatever you’re doing on the phone, if you’re doing it while behind the wheel, officers will consider that a sign of distracted driving — and will be keeping a close eye on you.
“Our officers are trained to detect impaired drivers,” said Smith. “Over the period of time in which text messaging has been popular, what we’ve seen is that more and more people exhibit impaired driving-like behavior when in fact they’re using a mobile device to some extent.”
According to Kentucky State Police statistics, 64,400 crashes last year were blamed on distracted driving in Kentucky last year, down about 2,000 crashes since the law's penalties took effect, reported the AP. Thus, it may not be surprising to see more legislation coming down the road.
“With the push for increased highway safety, I’m sure there will be an attempt to ask the legislature to expand laws to include the use of an electronic device, not just the texting part,” said Smith. “Texting is no different than composing an email.”