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Indiana's texting ban difficult to enforce

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Texting while driving is a Class C infraction in Indiana, with a fine of up to $500. But look around as you’re driving, and you’ll likely see at least a few motorists who appear to be fiddling with their phones.

Since July 1, 2011, Indiana Code 9-21-8-59 has prohibited texting while driving. It does not outlaw checking Facebook, searching for nearby restaurants, or any number of distracting activities that can be performed on a smartphone.

koch-eric-mug.jpg Koch

Police are not permitted to confiscate a phone for the purpose of determining whether someone was texting while driving, which leads some people to question the enforceability of the law. And others wonder whether the law will have any measureable effect on changing dangerous behaviors.

Enforceability

In Indiana, texting-while-driving is a primary offense, meaning officers can pull over a motorist for suspicion of texting alone.

Between July 1 last year and June 1, 2012, Indiana State Police issued 125 citations and 114 warnings for texting statute violations; in that same time, ISP issued 141,276 speeding citations and 48,889 seatbelt violation citations.

Chris Daniels, traffic safety resource prosecutor for the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, said that most prosecutors have not seen an influx of texting tickets. “I cannot say whether it’s because the law has had a deterrent effect, difficulties in enforcement, or a combination of both,” he said.

Attorney and Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, authored House Bill 1129, which created the new statute.

“I think we are still watching it and getting feedback on it,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a perfect law – I’m not sure any law is perfect, and there had been some concern about the difficulty of enforcement. But at the same time, it does make a public policy statement.”

Koch said that failing to outlaw texting while driving could cause new and inexperienced drivers to assume it’s OK for them to text while driving.

“The data show that people do want to and try to comply with the law, so I think when we make a statement like we did – that people should not text and drive – people who want to be law-abiding will follow that,” he said.

Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, voted against the bill last year.

“I did vote against it, and the first reason is it’s unenforceable, and we’ve seen that and heard that from many law enforcement folks who say there’s no way they can enforce this law,” he said. “I’m not in the habit of supporting a piece of legislation just to try to make a point.”

The Governors Highway Safety Administration’s report, “Distracted Driving: What Research Shows and What States Can Do,” advocates texting bans for drivers but notes the difficulty of enforcing those laws. The GHSA also advises that not enforcing existing statutes sends a message that the law is unimportant.

But enforcement – as one experiment showed – may mean more than simply initiating a traffic stop.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducted a test in two states with laws against driving while using hand-held cellphones to determine whether high-visibility enforcement initiatives would result in increased compliance with state laws. High-visibility enforcement combines dedicated law enforcement during a specific period and a media campaign that supports the enforcement-based message. The most well-known campaign is “Click It or Ticket,” which used a multi-pronged approach to encourage seat belt law compliance.

In Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., the study looked at the effectiveness of enforcement waves at a time when television, radio and online ads promoted the enforcement message. It also explored different methods of spotting offenses.

mcmillin_jud-mug.jpg McMillin

In four “waves” of enforcement, the percentage of drivers observed holding their phones to their ears decreased through the end of the fourth enforcement wave. Compared to control cities, where no media campaign took place and police did not engage in a targeted cellphone-use enforcement campaign, the reductions in Hartford and Syracuse were significant, reflecting a 57-percent decline in observed cellphone use, compared to a 15-percent decline in the control cities.

The research also supported the conclusion that police were more successful in seeing violations when they used creative approaches. Hartford police favored a team approach, where a stationary officer would radio ahead to a partner anytime the first officer saw someone using a cellphone while driving, and the second officer would initiate the traffic stop. Syracuse preferred roving patrols in either unmarked cars or vehicles such as SUVs that offer a higher vantage point, enabling officers to see texting and hand-held violations more clearly.

Other approaches

Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, is an attorney and former prosecutor who voted against Koch’s legislation.

“I had three basic problems with it at the time. One is that the problem we’re trying to fix is already covered in the law,” he said.

During discussions about the bill last year, he argued that if a driver were eating, applying makeup, texting, or otherwise distracted and caused a crash resulting in injury or death, the criminal recklessness statute would apply.

“If I was a prosecutor, I wouldn’t have any problem taking the case to trial under a criminal recklessness statue if someone had hit somebody and hurt them or killed them,” he said.

Another reason he objected to the law is that it could have the unintended consequence of people driving more poorly as they attempt to conceal their texting from police.

In September 2010, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Highway Loss Data Institute reported that an analysis of collision loss claims in four states that had enacted texting bans showed no decline in crashes. Rather, claims appeared to increase slightly, and researchers theorized that could be because drivers in those states responded to the ban by placing their phones in their laps when texting in order to avoid detection. However, the researchers went on to say that the study had some weaknesses, because collision claims were not a perfect indicator of crashes in which distraction was a factor.

textingAngie Rinock, spokesperson for State Farm Insurance, said Indiana’s law is a good first step toward raising awareness about the dangers of distracted driving. State Farm also emphasizes the importance of graduated driver’s license requirements in reducing teen crashes.

Indiana enacted its GDL restrictions in 2009, which state that drivers younger than 18 may not use any telecommunication device while driving, except to make emergency 911 calls. Washington, D.C., and 31 other states have imposed regulations that prohibit younger drivers from using cellphones while driving.

Sending a message

On June 6, a Massachusetts judge sentenced 18-year-old Aaron Deveau to prison for a fatal crash he caused when he was 17. Prosecutors said Deveau had been texting before he crossed a center line and collided with another vehicle, killing the occupant. The judge reportedly wanted to make an example out of Deveau in issuing the sentence of 2 1/2 years, with all but one year suspended. But penalties are not a deterrent for all people, as shown by the ongoing incidences of fatal crashes caused by drunk driving.

The Indiana Criminal Justice Institute reports that last year, the state had 1,027 crashes where cellphone use was listed as a contributing factor. Of those, five were fatal crashes, and seven fatalities occurred.

McMillin said he thinks Indiana’s law will not stop people from texting and driving, because the root cause of that problem is simply poor judgment. He thinks that the time spent hearing testimony and gathering the input and research necessary to craft a new law would be better devoted to educating people about making smarter decisions.

“We seem to overestimate what we have the ability to do in the Legislature a lot,” he said.

A study by the NHSTA in New York and Connecticut found most drivers reported a willingness to text or use their phones while driving and at the same time believed it was important for police to enforce laws preventing such practices. Those conflicting viewpoints highlight the difficulty of getting people to understand the risks associated with their own behaviors.•

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