Illegal texters not hard to find, bust

Posted: Sunday, May 23, 2010

COLUMBIA -- Critics of efforts to ban texting while driving in South Carolina say it will be difficult to catch offenders, but some authorities in states that have the ban say they have had little trouble.

"It's no different than an officer articulating that he saw someone run a stop sign," said Bill Sadler, spokesman for the Arkansas State Police, of the state's nearly year-old ban.

"It boils down to officer discretion and being able to articulate that to the court, if necessary."

In Minnesota, where the ban has been in place for for nearly two years, state troopers have busted 521 texting drivers.

"Sometimes people will say, 'I was dialing my phone' or, 'I was answering a phone call,'" said Minnesota State Patrol Lt. Eric Roeske, noting that the total does not include citations issued by local law enforcement.

"But typically if we have an opportunity to watch someone for a couple seconds, like on an interstate with several lanes, you can drive up next to them and you can tell if they start talking to someone or if they continue punching away," he said.

On May 5, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that Wisconsin had become the 25th state to ban texting while driving in some form. Whether South Carolina joins them before the legislature adjourns next month is being debated in the Senate.

Both the Senate proposal, S. 642 and the House version, H. 4282, are on the Senate calendar. Both define texting to include sending and reading e-mails.

On Wednesday the Senate bill was held up amid concerns by Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville, who raised one of lawmakers' central arguments against a texting ban: You cannot tell if someone is texting behind the wheel or making a phone call.

"What we're telling our great law enforcement in South Carolina is that they should be able to, from their vehicle to one of our vehicles, make a determination as to what is going on in a person's vehicle through windshields, glass windows to another glass window. Some of have tints. It could be raining," Malloy said.

A comparison of Connecticut and Tennessee shows the broader the law, the easier it is to spot violators.

In Connecticut a driver can be cited for holding an electronic device.

"I could leave my office today and probably give out six to eight tickets without any trouble," said Lt. Paul Vance of Connecticut State Police.

The Constitution State has outlawed hand-held electronic devices for five years but also provides a one-time forgiveness for violators who show proof they have purchased a hands-free device.

"There are no issues whatsoever, honestly," said Vance. "If it's in your hands you've violated the law."

But in Tennessee, where state authorities have issued 64 citations since the law went into effect in January, identifying an offender can be trickier.

Mike Browning said the law's language, which says texting is OK if the vehicle is stopped, requires police to be especially observant.

"It's a challenge," he said. "But at the same time, the THP and state legislature, I think, believe texting is a very dangerous activity while driving, so we try to get the message out there."

In Maryland texting has been illegal since last October and all hand-held devices will be against the law this October.

"When we look over and see someone trying to steer with their phone on the steering wheel while they are texting away, we can take appropriate action," said Elena Wendell-Russo, spokesperson for Maryland State Police.

"More importantly, an officer will be looking for the behaviors associated with someone texting or otherwise distracted, such as weaving in their lane, or over the centerline."

Like Tennessee's Browning, Wendell-Russo pointed to the law's usefulness in drawing attention to the dangers of distracted driving.

"If the driver throws the phone under the seat and sits there, the evidence might not be available to substantiate the charge," she acknowledged.

"However, the officer has stopped that driver and taken enforcement action. Hopefully, the driver will recognize why this happened and not text while driving again."

[Box: Tell-tale signs:

In Colorado, where the ban has been in place for six months, state troopers have caught about 130 texters. Law enforcement relies on these and other signs that a driver may be texting:

- Both wrists on the wheel while holding their phone in both hands. -

Person looking down for extended periods of time, then up at the roadway, only to look down again. -

Seeing a person use their cell phone, then putting it down, then picking it up again.

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