Enforcement concerns plague texting while driving ban
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Enforcement concerns plague texting while driving ban

Date: March 4, 2010
By: Kiki Schmitz
State Capitol Bureau
Links: HB1205 and SB781

JEFFERSON CITY -Proposed legislation extending a texting while driving ban has raised questions about the law's enforceability.

Currently, Missouri law prohibits drivers aged 21 and under from texting while behind the wheel. If a bill proposed by Rep. Rodney Schad, R-Versailles, is enacted, that ban would encompass drivers of all ages. While many have spoken out in favor of the legislation's goal, law enforcement officials have voiced concern that such a law would be challenging to maintain.

According to Capt. Michael Smith of the Jefferson City Police Department, texting while driving bans are "extremely difficult to enforce."  Smith said he hopes enforcement would become easier with time, likening possible implementation methods to those used in early drunk driving crackdowns.

"Over the years we developed certain signs that we watch for," Smith said, "like if someone is using only their high beams, or if they don't have their headlights on at all. These are signs of drunk drivers. I would imagine we're going to develop techniques to determine if an individual is texting."

Lieutenant John Hotz, of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, also cited specific traffic behaviors officers are currently using to pinpoint an underage texter, such as weaving across the center line, or driving erratically on and off the shoulder.

"Even though enforcement is difficult," Hotz said, "it is still important to have legislation in place. Of course some people will continue to do it until they get caught. We've done everything we can to educate people on the dangers of texting and driving, and hopefully we can see a reduction in these types of incidents."

 Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, a former chief of police with 17 years of law enforcement experience, said the present ban needs revision.

"The current law is incredibly subjective," Roorda said. "Not only does an officer have to look at a moving vehicle and determine whether the driver is 21 years of age or younger, but they must also determine if the device is being used for a prohibited or allowable use."

Allowable uses, such as dialing a phone number or activating a GPS feature, can make it challenging for officials to discern if a driver is actually texting.

Roorda suggested lawmakers could consider doing away with some of these acceptable uses to increase enforceability. Another option would be to allow officers to subpoena call logs or confiscate the phone, legislation Roorda said would be unlikely to pass.

"The most important change is getting rid of the age restriction," Roorda said.

Smith echoed Roorda's focus on extending the ban to all ages.

"Texting and driving is just one more bad habit that the American public has developed that is going to lead to traffic related deaths," Smith said. "It's not an age restriction; there's a lot of people that [text while driving]. It has become a common means of communication."

However, enforcement issues are not the only stumbling block hindering this legislation. Concerns about both enforcement and racial profiling have stalled a similar bill in the Alabama State Senate.  

The current Missouri ban on texting under the age of 22 classifies texting while driving as a primary offense, allowing an officer to stop drivers solely because they are texting.

Roorda said he could see how this provision might lead Missouri citizens to be concerned about racial profiling.

"If there's a legitimate fear," Roorda said, lawmakers could "require law enforcement officials to report statistics about texting while driving incidents, and collect data on specifics."

Proposed legislation in the Senate that would modify several automobile-related laws - including extending the texting while driving ban to all ages - received first-round approval March 3. The Senate bill would also cut the requirement for a front license plate, an amendment that does not sit well with the Missouri Police Chief's Association.

Sheldon Lineback, the association's director, said though the texting while driving ban is an improvement from the current law, the association is not in favor of dropping the second license plate requirement.

Rep. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County, who proposed the amendment, said it will save the state $3 million.

According to the Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety, distracted driving is the number one cause of traffic collisions in Missouri, and the reason behind more than a fourth of crashes reported in 2008. The House bill is expected to be discussed by the Public Safety committee March 16. The Senate bill must be approved once more before going to the House.