Michigan’s ban on texting and driving difficult for police to enforce

DISTRACTED: A survey released in December found 8.4 percent of Michigan drivers were talking, texting or using a hands-free device. (Pioneer photo/Justin McKee)

DISTRACTED: A survey released in December found 8.4 percent of Michigan drivers were talking, texting or using a hands-free device. (Pioneer photo/Justin McKee)

BIG RAPIDS — Law enforcement agencies throughout Mecosta and Osceola counties agree texting and driving is a widespread, serious problem, but the number of citations in the area vastly underrepresents just how many people are giving in to the dangerous habit.

Since July 2010, Michigan law has prohibited texting while driving.  The law bans motorists from reading, manually typing or sending a text message while driving. Those caught violating the law receive a $100 fine for the first offense and a $200 fine for subsequent offenses.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 44 states have adopted anti-texting laws and 14 states have prohibited the use of all hand-held phones for motorists.

In Mecosta County, there have been 20 citations for texting and driving since the law went into effect. In Osceola County, the number is even smaller — only four citations.

“Unfortunately, officers have a hard time distinguishing when someone is texting or just looking at their phone or dialing a phone number,” said Osceola County Undersheriff Justin Halladay. “A phone in their hand doesn’t mean they’re texting.”

A survey released in December found 8.4 percent of Michigan drivers were talking, texting or using a hands-free device. The survey was conducted by the Wayne State University Transportation Research Group and funded by the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning with federal traffic safety funds.

According to Michigan State Police, in 2013, more than 2,300 drivers were cited under the texting ban. Just six of those citations were in Mecosta County that year, while there were no citations in 2013 for texting and driving in Osceola County, according to court records.

The Big Rapids Department of Public Safety had a week-long assignment in April looking for drivers who were texting. Extra patrols were assigned to enforce the law.

“It’s a severe problem. The reason why I had this patrol is that I was on my way to dinner with my husband and we actually saw a kid driving down State Street texting with both hands and driving with his knee and I said ‘That’s it,” DPS Director Andrea Nerbonne explained. “I’d like to go a step further and cite someone like that for reckless driving because that’s quite dangerous.”

According to a National Occupant Protection Use Survey, at any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving, a number that has held steady since 2010.

Ferris State University Department of Public Safety Director Bruce Borkovich has noticed the problem continuing to grow.

“A large number of people are constantly texting or on a cellphone talking and being distracted in some form,” Borkovich said. “Our patrols focus a lot on spotting safety issues, such as speeding, reckless driving, driving while intoxicated and of course texting and driving. Those behaviors are specifically tied to accidents and fatalities.”

Mecosta County Sheriff Todd Purcell said it is easier to spot drivers texting within city limits because cars are moving slower and there are multiple lanes, as opposed to rural roads.

“It’s an issue nationwide and anytime we see a violation taking place we will take action to enforce the law, but it can be difficult,” Purcell said.

While everyday drivers have likely looked over to see a driver fiddling with their phone, police have a harder time spotting those texting behind the wheel.

“If we witness it, we stop them, but when drivers see patrol cars they tend to put their phones away,” Halladay said.

A large part of enforcement for texting and driving comes after an accident, Halladay said.

“With accidents, we have the ability to determine if the driver was texting before or during the accident and that puts them at fault,” he said.

According to AT&T’s Teen Driver Survey, 97 percent of teens agree that texting while driving is dangerous, yet 43 percent do it anyway.

While the dangers of texting and driving are well known, Halladay believes it’s the financial consequences that most often work to discourage the behavior.

“The law was put in place as a deterrent because of the immense risks, but for many people, I think especially young people, there is a feeling of being invincible or ‘that won’t happen to me,’ when thinking about accidents” Halladay said. “It’s the financial impact or losing their license, which mean something to them.”

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Posted by Emily Grove

Emily is the Pioneer and Herald Review crime and court reporter, covering crime in both Mecosta and Osceola counties. She can be reached by e-mail at emily@pioneergroup.com or by phone at (231) 592-8362.

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