Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

March 13, 2013

Hard to enforce

2010 law banning texting while driving is still valuable

The Independent

ASHLAND — A 2010 state law that bans texting while driving has proven to be difficult to enforce, but we knew it would be at the time it was enacted. 

However, while arrests and convictions for the extremely dangerous and foolish practice of texting while operating a motor vehicle have been few, the law wisely reminds motorists the practice is illegal, as it should be.

In the nearly two years since the law took effect, judges in Jefferson County, by far the state’s most populated county, have dismissed nearly 40 percent of the texting while driving charges brought before them. Prosecutors and law enforcement officers agree the law is almost impossible to effectively enforce.

The Courier-Journal analyzed all 909 charges brought across the state since police began citing drivers for two cellphone-related driving laws passed in 2010. One barred those younger than 18 from using cellphones while operating vehicles, and the other barred all drivers from sending or receiving text or email messages.

The data from Kentucky’s Administrative Office of the Courts showed 25 percent of those charges were dismissed, while prosecutors got convictions 63 percent of the time. About one-third of the cases avoided court altogether when drivers paid a fine.

Police officers say it’s difficult to determine whether a driver is illegally texting or using his or her phone for any number of other legal activities, such as to browse the Internet, update social media or get directions. Browsing the Internet and checking Facebook messages are just as foolish as texting while driving, but for now they are legal in Kentucky.

Even in the best of circumstances, police and prosecutors say texting while driving is difficult to prove.

“It’s a very serious problem, and we would like to see a change in the law that would create stronger penalties and fewer defenses so we can be more aggressive in the prosecution of these cases,” Julie Hardesty, first assistant for Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell, said in response to questions from The Courier-Journal about the law’s effectiveness.

“Without an admission from the driver, there is no good way to prove they were actually texting,” said Robert Neace, a Boone County attorney and president of the Kentucky County Attorneys Association.

However, police statistics showed a slight drop in the number of accidents caused by cellphones or other distractions in Kentucky. There were 64,400 accidents blamed on distracted driving in Kentucky last year, a drop of about 2,000 wrecks since the law’s penalties took effect, according to Kentucky State Police statistics.

State Rep. Tom Riner, a Louisville Democrat who sponsored the no-texting-while-driving bill, said he believes the law is effective even if some cases are thrown out.

“I’ve never introduced a perfect bill, and I’ve never seen one. I think if we make any improvement whatsoever it’s worth the effort,” Riner said.

At the time the law banning texting while driving took effect, we wrote in this space on July 11, 2010:

“Kentucky’s new law carries fines of only $25 for the first offense and $50 for a second offense. ... (T)his practice no longer is just merely stupid — it’s against the law. The threat of receiving such a small fine may not be enough to discourage all drivers from texting, but it is a step in the right direction.”

For the vast majority of drivers, the anti-texting law is unnecessary. Common sense alone is all we need to realize texting while driving is so dangerous it is impossible to do without endangering lives, including our own. If the ban on texting while driving convinces only a few to cease doing it out of fear of being arrested, it is working as intended.