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Enforcement a challenge with texting while driving ban

Enforcement a challenge with texting while driving ban

Mitch Coffman
April 26, 2012
Mitch Coffman
April 26, 2012

“This legislation will save lives.”

Those words came in a press release last week from the Idaho Transportation Department regarding the 2012 Legislature passing legislation that bans texting while driving.

That claim, founded or not, has been a feather in the cap for proponents of the law. They point out that Idaho now joins 42 states in having some sort of law addressing texting while driving.

Those opposing the law argue that it makes Idaho a nanny state of sorts for banning texting when it is already covered under the state’s inattentive driving statute. But perhaps the most-used argument against the law is how to enforce it.

The bill becomes law on July 1, 2012, and carries an $85 fine.

There was a lot of support by law enforcement during testimony on the bill, but now that it’s going to become law, not everyone is in agreement on enforcement.

“I think it’s going to be difficult to enforce to tell you the truth,” said Lt Paul Manning, public information officer for the Pocatello Police Department.

Manning says other forms of distracted driving, such as dialing a phone number or messing around with a stereo, are enforceable under the current inattentive driving part of Idaho Code.

Manning said without directly seeing someone in the act of texting, it will be hard to prove someone is violating the law. “Basically, you’re going to have to see somebody doing it. You’re going to have to catch them in the act. I mean, there are investigative methods. Like, if you had a traffic accident, as part of the investigation you could get permission to search their phone and see if they were texting at the time of the accident. You could kind of reconstruct it that way.”

Another police official, Capt. Steve Richardson of Idaho State Police, said enforcement will be very dependent on the situation, and agreed with Manning about accidents and texting. “It’s really situational, depending on what the circumstances are at the time and what observations that officer is able to make as well as conversation with the motorist. It’s just, what does the officer observe and does it reasonably appear that the officer can make the distinction as to what the motorist is doing at the time, while they’re in traffic. Based on that totality of the situation, it would determine what level of enforcement, whether it’s a citation, verbal warning …”

Richardson said there isn’t necessarily training that officers will go through to enforce the law, but it will be based more on observations on the part of officers. “Quite frankly, it’s not a whole lot different than if you were traveling down the road and sitting next to someone in the car and, for instance, they have their Blackberry at the top of their steering wheel and they’re using both hands, thumbs to make multiple entries there. It’s unlikely that it’s simply being used to dial a phone.”

With regard to the inattentive driving code already in place, Sgt. John Gonzales from the Meridian Police Department said that addressing texting while driving under that part of the code was a hurdle. Gonzales said, among other things, that prosecutors didn’t feel officers could pull over someone simply for texting under the current inattentive driving code. Therefore, a specific law was needed.

“The problem,” explained Gonzales, “was we would have to have a moving violation, also prove that they were on their phone, and also prove that they were texting or whatever (with their phone), that the phone was causing a distraction and caused them to be careless or unsafe in the way that they were driving. That’s a big hurdle to overcome.”

Gonzales also likened the new law with the approach officers take to speeding. That is, speeding is often a cause of accidents, so by officers posting speed limits and pulling people over for breaking the speed limit, they are taking a proactive approach to prevent a dangerous situation. “I think this is a way to try and be pre-emptive, or proactive, in trying to reduce crashes as well in instances where someone may be distracted by the use of their phone.”

Throughout debate on the issue, opponents said the new law was vague and that because there were other factors in distracted driving, singling out one of them didn’t make sense. Rep. Erik Simpson, R-Idaho Falls, said the bill did not really say whether or not checking other applications is an infraction. “I’m not clear, because written communications isn’t really defined,” he said.

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