By DAN SMALLWOOD
Capital News Service
LANSING – Although Michigan made texting while driving a primary offense last summer, enforcement remains a difficult task for police.
Thomas Hendrickson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police based in Okemos, said he suspects that tickets are rarely issued simply because it’s difficult to tell whether a driver is actively texting.
Dialing a phone number or using other phone functions isn’t illegal, he said, and dialing wouldn’t qualify as a reasonable suspicion for police to make a traffic stop.
But Nancy Cain, public relations director for AAA Michigan in Dearborn, said that she hoped drivers would refrain from dialing that number, whether or not it is illegal.
“We were very pleased when Michigan passed the law,” she said. “We think it’s very important that people don’t text and drive. People can’t do multiple things at once.”
Cain said that AAA doesn’t want drivers doing anything other than driving while behind the wheel, whether or not those activities are legal.
“Even on a hands-free cell phone, your mind is on the conversation rather than the road,” she said.
Because the difference between legal and illegal activity with a cell phone is difficult to identify at a moment’s glance, Hendrickson said that could impede enforcement of the law.
“To actually discern whether or not a driver was texting is difficult and would usually be done after the fact,” Hendrickson said.
He said while driving erratically can attract an officer’s attention, the usual citations would be for moving violations and unsafe driving, unless it was obvious that the driver had been texting.
Since the anti-texting law went into effect on July 1, 476 tickets have been issued under it, according to the Judicial Data Warehouse.
Violators of the law face a $100 fine for the first offense and $200 for subsequent violations.
These enforcement numbers, Cain said, represented a good start that she compared to the introduction of seat belt requirements.
“It takes a little time for people to get used to it,” she said. AAA, she said, has worked to communicate the existence of the law to its members and the general public.
Cain said she believes adherence to the law will improve over time.
In Troy, a more broad-based distracted driving ordinance makes any use of a cell phone other than with a wireless headset illegal, as well as any activity that noticeably impedes a driver.
Robert Redmond, a lieutenant with the Troy Police Department, said enforcement of just the texting provision of the law is difficult because many times the cell phone is on the driver’s lap, out of sight for most officers.
Troy’s law makes it so a driver is allowed most activities within reason, other than using a cell phone, so long as they’re able to capably drive while performing it.
Redmond said it’s hard to quantify how often accidents are linked to reckless behavior, simply because drivers won’t always own up to their mistake, content for more vague explanations for an accident.
“We all know what happens, but getting them to admit it is another matter,” he said. “We are asking more, though.”
Redmond said sometimes stupidity on the road is impossible to deny. He cited cases where a man was traveling more than 90 miles per hour on the freeway while filling a marijuana bong, or a woman who was swerving between lanes while attempting to dip and eat chicken nuggets.
These cases are just some examples of how distracted driving leads to excessively dangerous behavior, Redmond said.
But Hendrickson said that the only way to make it easier to catch violations of the anti-texting law would be if phones were significantly larger.
In addition, violations aren’t near the top of the priority list for police. Drunken drivers and other moving violation are much more prominent concerns, he said.
“Certainly texting is a distraction, but that distraction has to manifest itself in some other way,” Hendrickson said. “The mere fact that they’re texting won’t bring them to the attention of an officer.”
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.