Texting While Driving Banned, but Enforcement Difficult

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard in March signed legislation to make his state the 43rd one to ban texting while driving.

“Texting while driving is dangerous,” Daugaard said in a statement. “It is my hope that, by prohibiting this practice, we will remind South Dakotans and all those who use our roads to keep their eyes on the road, not on their phones.”

The new law, which will take effect July 1, prohibits drivers from using any handheld wireless device to write, send or read text messages or emails while the vehicle is in motion.

In South Dakota, the texting ban comes with secondary enforcement—law enforcement can only issue a ticket if the driver has been pulled over for something other than the texting offense. In 38 states, texting bans have primary enforcement, which means an officer can stop and ticket a driver solely for texting while driving, according to a new CSG Capitol Research brief, “Enforcement of Texting while Driving Bans.”

According to transportation safety experts, passing a distracted driving law is just a first step; enforcement of that law is key to its effectiveness.

State leaders are working with law enforcement to find new and better ways to enforce existing laws. In October 2012, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration awarded grants to Connecticut and Massachusetts to help them plan and conduct high-visibility anti-texting enforcement programs, according to the CSG brief.

Connecticut has used various enforcement techniques, but has found the spotter technique works best, according to Edmund Hedge, law enforcement liaison for the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s Highway Safety Office.

 “The spotter (police officer) stands in an area where he can observe vehicles passing at a slower speed, usually just before an intersection, stop light or stop sign,” he said. “When he observes a violation, he will call ahead by radio to (up to five other) waiting officers who stop the vehicle and issue a citation.”

Connecticut is using its grant to train police on spotting texting offenders and to work on effective media campaigns that alert the public to the dangers of texting while driving. The grants also call for Connecticut and Massachusetts to develop best practices for anti-texting enforcement protocols and techniques by evaluating the effectiveness of their enforcement activities over a two-year period.

Hedge conceded the efficacy of the spotting technique in other communities may depend on their geography and demographics, as well as the available manpower of the local police forces.

Connecticut officials plan to wrap up their pilot project with two more waves of high-visibility enforcement by June 2014. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration contractor, Sam Schwartz Engineering, will help process what they discover.

“We are systematically collecting and analyzing observational data, survey data and spending time with the law enforcement agencies to assess the strategies used under this project,” Richard Retting, director of safety research for the engineering firm, said. “We will work with NHTSA to develop firm conclusions from the research process to help define best practices in enforcement techniques and protocols.”

Even as the pilot projects in Connecticut and Massachusetts continue, some in law enforcement remain skeptical about how successful any such enforcement techniques can be.

“It’s next to impossible to enforce,” said Wayne Sampson, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. “The reality is if somebody’s driving down the road and they’re doing it down in their lap, you don’t know what they’re doing in their lap. Really, unless the kid is holding (the phone) up on the steering wheel and you drive by him, you can’t see it.”

Sampson agreed that often the only way to prove someone was texting at a certain time is to obtain his or her phone records after the fact through legal means, which can prove too much of a challenge if texting is the only offense.

“In Massachusetts, they’re still allowed to use their cell phone,” he said. “All they have to say is ‘Yeah, (I was) dialing the phone.’ How do we know the difference? Without going and getting a search warrant, which our courts are not going to let us do for every car that we see with (a driver with) a cellphone in their hand. You have to have more (in the way of probable cause) than just that they had a cell phone in their hand.”

Sampson said such loopholes make even primary enforcement laws like the one in Massachusetts debatable.

“It’s nice, feel-good legislation, but is it really that effective? The jury’s still out on that one,” Sampson said.

Sampson doesn’t believe complete bans on cellphones in vehicles are very realistic either.

“I’m just saying that enforcement is always going to be difficult,” he said.


Capitol Research Brief: "Texting While Driving"

Infographic: “States Take On Texting While Driving”

Capitol Research Brief: “Enforcement of Texting While Driving Bans”