The texting while driving law may have taken effect on Jan. 1, but local law
enforcement agencies patrolling Gardner, Edgerton and Spring Hill streets have yet to write a ticket for it.
Deputy Tom Erickson of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department, the agency that patrols the city of Edgerton and outlying parts of Spring Hill, Gardner and the rest of the county, said that officers are enforcing the law. They will write tickets for texting while driving, but it may take awhile for law enforcement to flesh out some of the gray areas of the new texting law.
“It’s going to take a little time to work out the specifics of how enforcement is going to go. There are nuances,” Erickson explained.
He said that proving in court that a driver is violating the texting law may be more difficult than proving other moving violations. Because of that, officers may continue to utilize other laws such as distracted or unsafe driving laws to stop drivers who may be using their handheld devices to send text messages.
“That’s part of it, how do we prove that someone was texting? In order to do that (the subject) will have to allow us access to their phone to show when they were sending a text or not, or reading one.”
Spring Hill interim chief Richard Mann says that his officers are watching for drivers who violate the law.
“Our officers are observant while they’re out on patrol,” he said, adding that texting while driving might not be as easy to detect as, say, a speeding violation. He said there are different signs that might lead a patrolman to believe a subject is texting.
“…It’s difficult to spot, it doesn’t stand out like a flashing light. If somebody is holding their phone to text, they’re probably holding their head down more so than if they’re just making a phone call. If they were making a call they would use their phone to dial somebody real quick, if you’re texting somebody your head is down. Also, if we stop somebody and their phone is in their hand, that might be another (clue).”
In order to give the appearance of safety, officers have observed some drivers positioning their phones within their field of vision. Officer Ilena
Spalding of the Gardner Police Department added. “People don’t want to hide the fact that they’re texting, they want to be safer so they’re holding their phone up by their steering wheel in order to be safe. So if we visually see them committing the violation that can be a primary reason to stop them.”
She said that officers in her department started writing warnings after the law was passed in July, but before it took effect in January of this year. During the ice storm in December Gardner police responded to an accident where the driver of one car slid into another while texting. She said that driver was issued an inattentive driving citation.
Erickson believes that there will be case law in the future that will offer some clarification on enforcement. He believes that part of the issue facing law enforcement will be accessing phones and phone records in order to make a case.
“It’s not that we can’t enforce or we won’t enforce (the law), it’s that we can’t take somebody to court on a traffic violation when we can’t prove it,” he said. “Right now in order to get someone’s phone records you have to subpoena them. Just like with any other type of search we would have to get a search warrant to access that device.”
Gardner, Spring Hill and Johnson County officers all agree that serious wrecks would warrant a more thorough investigation by law enforcement.
“If it involves somebody in a fatality or serious accident we would take the appropriate steps to find out if somebody is texting while driving,” Mann stated.
The fine for violating the texting while driving law is $60 and court costs. In Gardner, the statute sets the fine at $65 plus additional court fees.