OMG ... 130 texting charges

Few local citations; Police say new law difficult to enforce

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JEROME A. POLLOS/Press Brenan Anthony, 16, tries to complete a text message as he maneuvers through a course Wednesday during the Ford Driving Skills for Life program held at Post Falls High School. Students were allowed to familiarize themselves with the course and then attempted to drive the course while texting.

POST FALLS - Few local drivers have been cited under Idaho's texting law that went into effect July 1, but there were 130 statewide during the first three months.

Local law enforcement officials say the law has been difficult to enforce, but supporters argue the statute is still a deterrent and a step toward making roads safer especially with younger drivers who tend to text more.

"This law, as it is written, is nearly impossible to enforce because we cannot tell if someone is texting or dialing," said Kootenai County Sheriff's Office Maj. Ben Wolfinger. "A law must be enforceable to be effective."

That position is echoed by other area law enforcement agencies.

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene, who carried the bill that became law, said the point was also brought up during testimony when the proposal was being bantered by legislators.

"Officers said that typically people are pretty honest about telling what they were doing," Hammond said. "That's how it was believed they could get past (the texting vs. dialing hurdle)."

Hammond said the consensus at the Legislature was that the law will deter many drivers from texting and will be more effective over time with education similar to the way drinking and driving laws have become.

"People used to think that drinking and driving wasn't much of a big deal; now it's a social norm not to do that," Hammond said.

The KCSO and Rathdrum Police had not written any citations under the texting law as of Wednesday. The fine for violators is $85.

"For us, it is a case of just not seeing any violations yet," Rathdrum Police Chief Kevin Fuhr said, adding that he doubts there have been any warnings.

Post Falls and Coeur d'Alene only issued one citation during the first three months of the law and, in both cases, the driver had admitted that texting was a factor in the crashes. Idaho State Police had issued 17 citations statewide as of Wednesday under the law.

According to Idaho's Office of Highway Safety, of the 130 total texting citations statewide between July 1 and Sept. 30, there have been 86 guilty findings. Some charges are still pending.

"That shows the law is working the way it's supposed to," Hammond said of the numbers.

He said the law isn't intended to be a big ticket generator.

"It's more of an opportunity for education that people could be cited," Hammond said.

Post Falls' Sarah Reynolds, who filled up her vehicle with gas on Thursday, said she used to text while driving often, but has cut down to next to nothing since the law went into effect.

"I admit there's times where I've done it, but it's down to a bare minimum," she said. "The law has just reminded me that it just makes common sense to not text while you're driving."

Police praised the state's inattentive driving law that results in a misdemeanor for violators.

"It punishes actual acts that are inattentive in nature, regardless of the reason, whether it be the use of an electronic device or eating a hamburger," Wolfinger said. "Inattentive is inattentive."

Hammond said the new texting law puts another tool in police's toolbox when it comes to how to penalize violators.

"State police told us that sometimes they are hesitant to use the harsher (misdemeanor) penalty," he said.

Post Falls police Capt. Pat Knight said violations under the texting law could be difficult to prove without an admission from the alleged suspect.

Still, police are learning look for visual clues ontexting drivers.

"The ways that we try to differentiate between texting and driving is to observe the individual for a moment before determining to stop or not," Knight said. "I think that you'll see someone who is dialing a number is relatively quick at doing so versus a lengthy text.

"I don't see this as an unenforceable law, just one that could be difficult to prove if push came to shove."

Knight said a law forbidding drivers to use all hand-held devices - similar to statues in many states - would be easier to enforce. However, legislators have refrained from going to that extreme, partially due to Idaho being a mostly rural state.

Dave Carlson, spokesman for the AAA Idaho travel agency, said his organization supports the texting law. He said a time-tested formula for changing dangerous driving behaviors relies on well-written laws, strong public outreach, high visibility enforcement and time similar to DUIs.

AAA concedes that the law will not totally solve the distracted driving problem, but it's a start. The low number of citations during the first three months in some areas is also not a surprise to the agency because an education period and time to recognize texting driving behaviors was anticipated.

"Enforcing the new law will take time and effort," a AAA press release states. "For their part, motorists need to assume responsibility to respect the new law."

Hammond said technology advances will also help when it comes to distracted drivers.

"You can verbally tell your phone to text and it will do it," he said. "Down the road, there will be more and more cars with blue tooth availability and you won't need to pick up a phone."

Meanwhile, efforts are under way to educate drivers, particularly teens, about the dangers of being distracted. Ford held a free hands-on Driving Skills for Life program at Post Falls High on Wednesday in collaboration with the Governor's Highway Safety Association and local police as part of National Teen Driver Safety Week.

"The goal of this program is to teach newly-licensed teens the necessary skills for safe driving beyond what they learn in standard driving education programs," said Heidi Swartzloff, spokeswoman for the program.

A texting-while-driving law was considered during the previous two legislative sessions before Idaho during the last session became the 37th state to prohibit the practice.

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