It’s been more than nine months since Kansas law enforcement officers got the go-ahead to ticket drivers for sending text messages while driving.
But the law has been used sparingly so far in Lawrence and Douglas County, according to court records.
Kansas Highway Patrol troopers and sheriff’s officers have issued tickets in Douglas County District Court to eight drivers this year, and in Lawrence Municipal Court police officers have ticketed 15 drivers under the law.
“It’s a real concern to us. It’s a real danger,” said Sgt. Steve Lewis, a sheriff’s spokesman. “But it’s a tough one to enforce, so I think educating all of those electronic-device users is necessary.”
When the law took effect, state transportation and law enforcement officials touted it as a tool to try to combat the major distraction that leads many drivers to taking their eyes off the road for seconds at a time.
But so far — at least on Douglas County roads and highways — most of the texting tickets were issued after an accident and a driver admitted to sending an electronic message just before or during the crash.
A 16-year-old Lawrence girl, who was not injured, was cited for texting Sept. 10 after she rolled her vehicle on Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence.
Before that accident, district court had processed seven tickets under the texting law this year, five of which occurred after crashes, said Jacy Wolfe, who handles traffic issues in the court clerk’s office. Information was not available last week on how many of the 15 texting citations in Lawrence Municipal Court occurred after traffic accidents. City Prosecutor Jerry Little said one person was convicted for violation of a texting law in a recent trial.
The ticket carries a $60 fine and about $100 in court costs.
Lewis said the law is difficult to enforce in rural areas because officers are usually either sitting stationary while monitoring traffic that is moving at a high rate of speed or patrolling on the road themselves while driving around 50 mph — faster than the usual 30 mph in urban areas.
While the law makes sending text, email or instant messages illegal while driving, it allows drivers to read, select or dial numbers so they can place a phone call while driving, making it often difficult for officers to tell the difference, Lewis said.
“It’s not any more difficult than any other laws we enforce,” said KHP Technical Trooper Josh Kellerman, who ticketed a man earlier this year for texting south of Lawrence after an accident. “We’re just trying to be a little more diligent, and we want to make sure 100 percent that it is a violation before we actually stop that vehicle.”
Law enforcement officers also said they hoped education about the issue could help deter drivers from texting or using features on their smartphones before they could face a ticket or, even worse, cause a serious head-on collision. Kellerman said troopers handed out information about the dangers of texting and driving and the law last week at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson, for example.
Lewis said he encouraged people to download smartphone applications that can prevent them from sending text messages while they’re driving.
Kellerman said there’s an incorrect perception that it’s a problem only among younger drivers. While he said that it’s a major issue, adults are guilty of it, too. He said troopers while off duty often notice people texting when they are driving because generally people put down their phones when they see a marked police car around, just like when people tend to slow down to the speed limit if they see an officer.
“That’s why we want the troopers enforcing it,” Kellerman said. “We just need to make sure 100 percent it’s a violation before stopping them.”
Lewis said that while the law may be difficult to enforce in some situations, he believes it brings awareness to the problem.
“The law is a very good law,” he said, “because it addresses one of the newest and most common and probably one of the most dangerous distractions that now occupy drivers.”