October 13, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Cops handcuffed despite tougher texting law

(Continued from page 1)

“A large piece of it is to have a conversation with the driver,” Malloch said. “What we’re looking for is some kind of admission that what they were doing was in fact texting or doing emails or something like that.”

Without that admission, or the easier-said-than-done observation of someone actually typing out a text message, there’s not a lot an officer can do beyond a written warning.

Confiscating the actual mobile device would require a search warrant and, as State Police Chief Williams noted, “the question becomes, ‘Can you even get a search warrant?’ Because it’s not a crime, it’s a civil infraction.”

Thus, said Williams, enforcing the new law “takes a little finesse.”

“Most people you stop are fairly honest,” he said. “But if they say no, you’ve got to figure out how to prove that case without their admission. There are people who don’t readily admit when they’ve done something wrong.”

Meaning that, like the woman on the interstate who slipped through the phone-dialing loophole, they get away with it.

Williams said state police use a high-riding, unmarked van, as well as officers looking down from highway overpasses, to spot people in the act of texting. But the long-term goal, he added, is not to see how many summonses they can hand out.

“It’s to stop the behavior,” Williams said.

On that note, let’s go to the numbers: According to the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration, you’re 23 times more likely to have an accident while texting than if you’re focusing only on your driving.

At the same time, according to the NHSTA, driving while texting is six times more dangerous than driving drunk – which explains why texting overtook drinking last year as the leading cause of driving fatalities among adolescents.

(In a 2010 survey of 1,999 teenage drivers by AAA and Seventeen magazine, 22 percent of the respondents said they text behind the wheel because it makes driving “less boring.”)

Still not impressed?

Then answer this: How willing would you be to drive 123 yards, at 55 mph, completely blindfolded? That, in effect, is what you’re doing for every five seconds you spend reading or responding to a text message.

Secretary of State Dunlap, who oversees the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles, wonders if the ultimate solution here is to take mobile devices – hand-held or hard-wired into a new vehicle’s dashboard “control center” – out of the driving equation altogether.

“The technology, I’m sure, is there,” Dunlap said. “If we’re tracking all these cellphones by satellite, they should be able to shut off the texting function” when the device is moving at high speed.

Interesting idea – although not everyone traveling at high speed happens to be behind the wheel of an automobile.

Bottom line, fellow Mainers, it’s still up to you ... and the guy fast approaching you ... and the kid tailgating you ... and the woman barreling toward the next intersection ...

You can pull over and do your texting at a full and complete stop. (Last month, New York went so far as to designate 91 “text stops” along the state’s highway system.)

Or, if you’re the honest type, you can admit to the cop who pulls you over that you were texting – and pay Maine’s new-and-more-painful penalty.

Or you can lie to the officer, toss the warning in the glove compartment and go on your distracted way.

Until the day you die.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:


Twitter: @billnemitz


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