Distracted to Death: Texting Law Hard To Enforce Despite Increasing Dangers

March 25, 2015
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As the state’s texting and driving law hits its five-year anniversary, texting and driving – or phone distractions of any type – are a sight more common than ever on streets and highways.

More often than not, at any busy intersection, one can observe driver after driver passing by with one eye on the road and the other eye on a cell phone.

Meanwhile, local police departments report that the law on the books is virtually impossible to enforce, and if successfully enforced, requires heavy homework and records requests – all for a simple citation.

Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes said he puts the problem of distracted driving on par with driving while intoxicated (OUI). He said those that text and drive can be more hazardous to the public than drunk drivers.

“Is it a problem? Absolutely,” he said. “It’s getting to the point that we know people getting an OUI are distracted at the same level as those texting and driving. This is so prevalent that I think it’s probably – due to the frequency of occurrence – it is just as great a risk as people who get behind the wheel and drink and drive. If I’m texting for two or three seconds, in that same time a kid can run in front of your car while you’re  looking down. You can go head on into another car in that time. It’s a huge problem. Law enforcement is in the middle because it’s a difficult law to enforce at this point.”

State Police statistics for crash data show that, for those accidents that were pinpointed to distracted driving, the numbers are on the rise. Though the crashes pinpointed to distracted driving or cell phone use are probably miniscule compared to the actual problem, the existing numbers have doubled since 2010.

In 2010, the State Police pinpointed 194 crashes attributed to the two categories. That increased to 226 in 2011, 229 in 2012, and eventually 317 in 2014.

At the same time, State Police have gone from issuing 893 citations in 2012 to 3,105 in 2014, though part of that increase was due to a Pilot program in the Merrimack Valley area in 2013 and 2014.

That Pilot program, however, might be expanded in coming years and could be one way to target the growing problem of using Smart phones for texting, e-mail, Internet, etc. while driving.

“During [the Pilot] we used some different tactics, including spotters and unmarked trucks and SUVs, which allowed troopers a better vantage point to spot texters,” said State Police spokesman David Procopio. “This was funded with a grant and we were very pleased with the results. I am sure we will consider seeking grant funding to expand on that pilot program.”

Meanwhile, in local police departments, they are finding more frustration with the law and some said they would be in favor of taking stronger measures – such as moving to hands-free only use of cell phones in vehicles.

Kyes said it is very difficult for law enforcement to prove their case under normal circumstances – such as where there is no accident, but where officers definitely detect impaired driving.

“We see it all the time,” he said. “I’ve stopped cars and stopped individuals and you just have these grey areas. They say they weren’t texting. They say they were just talking. They say they were using GPS…At the end of the day, I am a big fan of hands-free. If that’s a law, it eliminates the guessing games for law enforcement.”

Such a plan has been floated recently by Gov. Charlie Baker, who indicated he would be favorable to passing a hand-free cell phone law. Such a law exists in Connecticut, as has been reported in several media outlets such as Fox 25 news, and it has allowed law enforcement there to come down hard on texters. That state writes about as many citations in one year as Massachusetts has written in five years.

Revere Police (RPD) said they try to pinpoint cases that they can prove and making the effort in court for those who fight the citation.

Early on, during implementation of the law in 2010, Revere Police told the newspaper they were skeptical about how it would be enforced. Leaders in the department at that time said they saw problems with proving a case and, from the beginning, took a practical approach to enforcement.

“We do write a couple of citations a week from our patrols in regard to texting and driving,” said Lt. Amy O’Hara of the RPD. “There have been times when we have subpoenaed phone records from an operator that were useful in a case, such as in a car accident. The cell phone records have been useful to us in cases like that…Our officers, if they see it, they’re going to make a motor vehicle stop. We get a couple a week.”

O’Hara said one thing that officers often suggest to drivers – and even themselves – is to pull over and send a text or e-mail if it’s extremely important. Otherwise, just wait.

“When I first started, if I wanted to communicate with someone, I had to wait until I got to the station or pull over and use a pay phone,” she said. “The thing you have to realize is just how important or unimportant that text is. It is extremely dangerous to text and drive.”

Everett Police Chief Steven Mazzie said he didn’t have specific numbers as to how many people Everett Police cite for distracted driving or texting. However, he said they concentrate on educating people rather than trying to win a disputed citation or prove something in court.

“There are probably not a lot of violations in terms of people getting written up for it,” he said. “It appears we probably stop people, try to talk to them, and try to educate them. Some have been cited. Some have been given warnings. The numbers, though, are extremely low. Overall, the whole issue of distracted driving no doubt is a problem. I think people are distracted in general – not just when they’re driving but really people are distracted overall in daily life. That carries over into their vehicles.”

Until a time when the law is changed, however, Kyes said in Chelsea they plan to mount a campaign similar to the State Police pilot program to use new techniques to catch texters – including using video in unmarked cars.

“Because it is so prevalent we do have plans to address it and we’re going to put one of our traffic units in an unmarked motor vehicle with one observer and one driver,” he said. “They’ll drive around certain high-traffic areas at key times of the day. We’ll make observations and when we see texting and driving – people punching keys – we’ll stop them and do some traffic enforcement…We would probably also go a step further where the observing police officer would utilize a video. It’s not just what we say, but what we see, in case someone disputes it.”


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