October 8, 2013 in City

Texting while driving common but hard to catch

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Texting may be one of the most dangerous and common distractions to drivers, but local law enforcement officials say it’s also one of the most difficult laws to enforce.

A new study from the University of Washington found that 8 percent of drivers observed at intersections in six counties in the state were distracted by an electronic device behind the wheel, and among those, 45 percent were typing on their phones. (Story continues below graphic.)

Previous research cited in the study indicated that texting while driving increases the risk of crashing by 23 times, comparable to driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.19. FYI, that’s no LOL matter – that’s more than twice the legal limit.

Yet it’s almost impossible to catch drivers in the act, said Trooper Jeff Sevigney with the Washington State Patrol.

“It’s hard to combat the texting part unless you get lucky and happen to observe somebody that doesn’t see you,” Sevigney said.

Drivers often keep their phones in their laps when texting to avoid being seen, meaning they aren’t looking at the road, Sevigney said. They often put the phone down completely once they see a patrol vehicle coming, he added.

“When you drive around with a marked patrol vehicle, people suddenly remember what they’re supposed to do,” Sevigney said. “That just makes it more difficult.”

The number of citations issued to texting drivers in Spokane County has decreased since 2011, with 1,326 tickets handed out in the first full year after texting while driving became a primary offense, according to data from Spokane Municipal Court. In 2012, that decreased to 1,152. This year, law enforcement officers have issued 496 citations as of Sept. 16.

Spokane police Officer Teresa Fuller doesn’t think that’s reflective of fewer drivers texting on the roadways.

“I think it’s dwindling because people are getting smarter and our resources are down,” Fuller said.

SPD has just six full-time traffic patrol officers, and they’re often removed from their typical duty when more serious crimes are being committed elsewhere in the city, Fuller said, leaving texting drivers to rule the roadway.

It’s also difficult to judge how many collisions are caused by texting or talking on the phone while driving, both Fuller and Sevigney said. Law enforcement agencies don’t file search warrants for drivers’ cellphones unless someone is killed or seriously injured.

Still, Sevigney said he has no doubt texting while driving is dangerous. Everyone he has pulled over has said as much – but that doesn’t seem to deter people from texting.

“Everyone had admitted it is a distraction,” Sevigney said. “Unfortunately, it’s just everybody has (a phone).”

The full UW report, conducted by researchers at the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center, will be released later this month with more data specific to Spokane County drivers.

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