Ban on texting yields few tickets

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Kevin Hoffman
Sunday, April 10, 2011
— Wisconsin’s ban on texting while driving has yielded only a handful of citations in Walworth County, leading some law enforcement officials to ask whether it’s time to consider changes to the legislation.

The law went into effect Dec. 1, but some feel it is littered with loopholes, making it nearly impossible to enforce.

“Ninety percent of the time we write (a citation), we write it for inattentive driving because it’s much easier to prove,” said Capt. Scott McClory of the Walworth County Sheriff’s Office.

Officers believe the law has not forced people to take preventive action. Instead, it has evolved into just another way to issue citations when crash investigations find a driver was fumbling with his cell phone instead of focusing on the road, said Greg Leck, Stoughton police chief and president of Wisconsin’s Chiefs of Police Association.

Wisconsin is the 25th state to ban texting while driving, but the law prohibits only composing and sending text messages. It doesn’t outlaw reading emails, checking navigation systems or using other functions of handheld devices. It even lets drivers send text messages, as long as they’re stopped at a traffic light or stop sign.

Those rules have tied the hands of police officers, resulting in few tickets being written. Eleven police departments in Walworth County have written fewer than five tickets. Fines range anywhere from $100 to $400 for a first offense and up to $800 for a second offense.

Delavan Police Chief Tim O’Neill said his department issued one citation in January, but the law makes it nearly impossible to stop drivers if officers observe them texting. They would need drivers to admit they were sending text messages, which rarely happens.

The sheriff’s office issued one citation since the bill became law Dec. 1. A Williams Bay man was ticked when he admitted after a crash that he had been sending a text message.

“Putting texting in the context of inattentive driving, I would say it is a very serious problem,” Leck said.

“As our roadways continue to become more and more crowded, these types of problems will only increase.”

A 2009 report from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found text messaging while driving is 23 times more dangerous than talking on a cell phone behind the wheel. Police also are disturbed by a study that found texting and driving is about as dangerous as driving with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent.

An estimated 16,000 people in the United States died between 2001 and 2007 from accidents caused by drivers sending text messages, according to the American Journal of Public Health.

Police don’t question the danger of texting while driving, they’re just not sure how to enforce the new Wisconsin statute.

“If the law were no texting while driving, period, I think we could all make the (determination) that it would eliminate some of the crashes caused by inattentive driving,” McClory said. “I think a more viable tool for law enforcement is not using your phone at all while driving.”

Former state Rep. Kim Hixson was one of the authors of the legislation. He said state lawmakers agreed something needed to be in place, but they didn’t want to go too far.

The idea, he said, was more about sending a message that texting is illegal and less about clamping down on violators with hefty fines.

That doesn’t mean the law won’t evolve. Hixson called it a “good start” and thought legislators might be open to amendments in the future.

“This is the first time we’ve prohibited something in this type of technology,” Hixson said. “I think you kind of walk lightly and see if this has an effect. If it doesn’t, then maybe you do need to put more teeth into it.

“I think just talking on the phone is a distraction, and studies have proven that’s true, but we didn’t look at that.”

McClory is among those who would like to see Wisconsin adopt something similar to what New York and Illinois approved. Those states ban drivers from using cell phones, forcing them to use hands-free devices or pull off the road, which McClory would like more drivers to consider.

The texting while driving ban is only 4 months old, and legislators have not yet had the opportunity to review its success. Leck said he’s not sure how the law could be made more effective, partly because of the difficulty in observing drivers using their phones.

“In my discussions with my peers, we agree that this is a necessary law but will largely not have much of a preemptive impact on crashes,” he said.

“Unfortunately, until people take driving seriously or more crash avoidance technology becomes readily available, people will continue (to be) killed and injured on our streets and highways because of inattentive behavior.”

Last updated: 5:01 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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