Thursday, July 8, 2010

Police write few tickets for texting behind wheel

Teens say it's easy to avoid detection By Jennifer Brooks • THE TENNESSEAN • July 8, 2010 Tennessee's texting-while-driving ban has been on the books for a year now, but only a relative handful of drivers have been ticketed for the offense. Nashville police have issued 19 citations for texting while driving since the ban became law in July 2009. The Tennessee Highway Patrol has issued 88 citations for texting behind the wheel since January. Gallatin wrote nine tickets. La Vergne issued none. Some other communities don't even keep track. It's a small dent in what law enforcement officials say is the growing menace of distracted drivers on Tennessee roads. "Our cars have become our powder rooms, our electronic rooms, our phone rooms, our dining rooms," said Dan Davidson, an investigator for the Metro Nashville Police fatal accident division. "I've seen people with paper up on the steering wheel, writing while they drive. . . . There was a woman who killed a man and his wife because she was driving down Briley Parkway and putting on makeup." Texting tickets are few and far between, partly because the law is so new, and partly because the offense is so hard to spot — and there are loopholes in the law big enough to drive a car through. Tennessee bans texting, but talking on the phone is perfectly legal — and so is punching in a phone number. "I know a lot of people who say, 'If a cop's looking, I'll hold the phone up to my face and just act like I'm making a call. They can't tell,' " said Meagan Eaton, 17, of Murfreesboro. But from where Tennessee Highway Patrol Trooper Travis Plotzer is sitting — in his patrol car along the temptingly open stretches of Interstate 40 between Davidson and Humphries counties — it's pretty easy to spot the drivers who are texting. "Oftentimes they're swerving," he said. "It almost mimics drunk driving in the delayed response. You'll see excessive weaving, you'll see them looking down." Distracted drivers kill According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 80 percent of vehicle crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes were caused by distracted drivers —distracted by anything from children fighting in the back seat to an incoming text. Texting, which requires drivers to take their attention off the road while they hunt and peck around a palm-sized keyboard and then read the reply, is a relatively new category of menace. A poll last year found that 42 percent of Tennesseans admitted to texting while driving, making the state one of the worst offenders in the country. For younger drivers, used to being in constant text contact with their friends, the temptation to text behind the wheel is strong. "People get impatient with you on the other end if you don't answer right away," said Jeremy Capps of Cane Ridge. "It's almost an obligation," said James Lucas, 17, of Memphis. The two teens are part of a group of 20 high schoolers taking part in law camp, a weeklong exploration of legal careers going on at Lipscomb University. The camp exposes students to every aspect of law enforcement and legal careers, from courts to cops to prisons and judges' chambers. This year, law camp participants are exploring the Tennessee texting ban — including a role-playing exercise in which they deposed an actor playing the part of a driver whose texting caused him to slam into another vehicle, killing a mother and baby. Law meant to deter Violating the new law means risking a $50 ticket. An early proponent of the texting ban, State Rep. Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said the real deterrent is not the threat of a fine, but the fact that it empowers other people in the car to remind the driver that what they're doing is dangerous. "I do know that most people are grateful the ban is in place," said Harwell, who sponsored an earlier version of the texting ban that eventually passed. "Part of it's just an educational effort. . . . Now you can tell someone, 'This is against the law. Don't do it. You could harm someone else.' " The question now is whether the law is deterrent enough. "No one calls anymore. We text nonstop," said Leigh Stanfield, a 16-year-old from Soddy Daisy, who is also participating in Lipscomb's law camp. Last year, when she and her classmates were just learning to drive, she said, none of them would have dreamed of trying to multitask behind the wheel. Now, feeling confident behind the wheel, she said many of her friends text while driving.

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