New ban on texting while driving yields few tickets

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In its first five months on the books, Indiana's texting-while-driving ban has led to only a few dozen citations by state troopers—a trend police blame on restrictions in the law that make it difficult for them to enforce.

Indiana's law, which took effect July 1, states that a driver may not use a telecommunications device to type, transmit or read a text message or email while operating a moving motor vehicle.

But as of Dec. 9, state troopers had issued just 46 citations and 40 warnings statewide for texting-while-driving activities, said State Police Sgt. John Bowling.

The city of Muncie, meanwhile, hasn't had a single texting-while-driving citation issued since the law took effect, said Sgt. Bruce Qualls, supervisor of Muncie police's traffic division.

He tells The Star Press that the way the law is written, it's "extremely difficult" to prove a driver was actually transmitting a text message or email communication.

Under Indiana's law, officers are not permitted to confiscate a cellphone from a driver to try to determine whether the motorist did something illegal, complicating efforts to prosecute people who violate the law.

"We actually have to catch the person texting," Qualls said. "So, it's a deal of you look over and are they dialing the phone? Are they actually texting? There's no way of really determining that."

Muncie patrolman Kevin Durbin said he hasn't noticed many motorists obviously texting or emailing as he patrols the city in his police squad car. But he said that changes when he's cruising city streets while off duty.

"I wish I had an unmarked car for when I'm off duty—and then you could bet we'd see an increase in citations," he said.

Despite the new state laws against it, studies show texting while driving is actually increasing.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that last year nearly 1 percent of drivers were in the process of using their devices at any given time. That activity increased 50 percent from the same 2009 study.

A separate telephone survey of drivers indicated 18 percent of motorists said they've sent texts or emails while driving. That number increased to about 50 percent when looking at drivers ages 21-24, according to NHTSA.

"They're saying texting and driving is the new DUI," said Arlan Johnson, a lieutenant with the Delaware County Sheriff's office. "Well, the same things happen as far as the reactions and motor skills being slowed down, but the alcohol causes physiological problems, while the texting is more of a physical problem."

Local law enforcement is also finding an increasing and dangerous trend involving a mixture of both fatigued and distracted driving.

Bowling, of state police, said a key indicator is when crashes involve rear-end collision with no apparent skid marks.

"Both those factors together have become one of the main crash causation factors in America," Bowling said. "We're seeing that more and more, and I can vouch for that locally that we're seeing more crashes of that nature."

Johnson and Qualls both noted that accidents involving distracted drivers aren't just limited to those texting or sending emails. They also include people whose cars weave on roadways or drive off the road because they're talking on their cellphone.

"I have stopped people and said, 'Hey, you need to either stop talking on the phone and drive more, or park and talk on the phone until your heart is content,'" Qualls said. "I say, 'Because it's obvious by the way that you're driving that you're not capable of doing both.'"

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