TECH
08/27/2013 08:03 am ET Updated Aug 27, 2013

Why It's So Hard To Crack Down On Distracted Driving

SAN DIEGO -- During any given daylight hour, there are 660,000 American drivers using gadgets at the wheel. But while the devices themselves have become steadily more advanced, catching the drivers who use them illegally still relies on something decidedly traditional: eyes.

Commissioner Joe Farrow of the California Highway Patrol offered a glimpse in an interview Monday at the challenges officers face in enforcing anti-texting laws, even as he and others noted that doing so was critical to efforts to eliminate distracted driving.

In California, among other states, spotting a driver tapping on a cellphone isn’t enough to issue a ticket: Law enforcement officers must get visual confirmation that the driver is exchanging a digital message on his or her phone -- all while they’re driving beside the suspected offender in a marked patrol car, Farrow explained.

“I have to pull up alongside of you, watch you, see you and testify in court that I saw you with your phone, texting or reading messages in the car,” Farrow said following the annual meeting of the Governors Highway Safety Association, a nonprofit organization that represents the nation’s highway safety offices. “We do write a significant number of citations, but it’s a bit more difficult than people think because we have to be able to testify in court that you were doing that, rather than jut holding the device.”

California’s anti-texting law, which went into effect in 2009, prohibits drivers from writing, sending or reading “text-based communication” on any “electronic wireless communications device,” which makes it illegal to text, compose an email, share a photo on Instagram or “like” someone’s Facebook status while at the wheel.

Yet the law is narrow enough that it’s not technically illegal to look up a contact on one’s cellphone or pick a song on iTunes, meaning officers must see what a driver is doing on a smartphone before they can issue a citation. If they can’t see that the driver is messaging, their citation isn’t likely to hold up in court.

“Some people argue, ‘I wasn’t texting, I was just holding [the phone] in my hand,’” Farrow said. “I have to be able to convince a judge that I did see you [texting] within a reasonable doubt you were doing it.”

The fact that some people will keep texting even with a police car driving alongside them offers some idea of just how distracting mobile devices can be. According to the National Highway Safety Administration, 10 percent of all fatal crashes in 2011 were caused by driver distraction. Studies have found that talking on the phone while driving can increase the risk of a crash by four times, while the National Safety Council estimates that texting at the wheel ups the risk of an incident by eight to 23 times.

An officer from the Phoenix Police Department said Monday after the meeting that he faced similar challenges in enforcing anti-texting laws, noting that drivers will often dodge tickets by telling judges they were, say, placing a call, but not texting. Although he’s written hundreds of citations over the past several years, just five or so have stuck, he said.

At least in California, drivers may soon find their excuses fail to hold up under scrutiny. In March, a driver contested a ticket he’d been issued for distracted driving by arguing he’d been using his phone’s mapping app, but not messaging. A court ruled that regardless of whether the phone was being used as a “telephone, a GPS navigator, a clock or a device for sending and receiving text messages and emails,” if the driver was handling the phone, he was in violation of the state statute requiring drivers to use hands-free devices.

Farrow remains optimistic that coupling enforcement with safety education programs will help reduce distracted driving, and that setting aside the smartphone will become as second-nature as putting on a seat belt.

"I believe that people know that they shouldn’t be texting and driving," he said. "There's this transformation occurring, just like in the 80s when seat belts became mandatory."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified the Governors Highway Safety Association as the Governors Highway Safety Administration.

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