A Kansas University professor who studies distracted driving behaviors says Kansas law enforcement agencies could learn lesson from Illinois on how to crack down on drivers who send text messages behind the wheel.
“It really is just whether or not it’s a priority,” said Paul Atchley, a KU associate professor of psychology who participated in a summit about distracted driving in Illinois earlier this year.
Since January, Kansas officers have had authority to ticket motorists who send electronic messages while they’re driving, but the law has been used sparingly so far this year in Douglas County. Officers have written eight tickets in Douglas County District Court, and six of those occurred after accidents in which drivers admitted to sending a message before a crash. Lawrence police as of last week had issued 15 tickets for texting and driving, according to municipal court.
Kansas officers have said the law is difficult to enforce because it can be tough to tell if a driver is sending a text, email or instant message, which is illegal, versus dialing a phone number, which is legal.
But Atchley said Illinois law enforcement has had better results since its texting-and-driving ban took effect in January 2010. According to statistics, the Illinois State Police wrote more than 900 tickets and warnings for texting in 2010, and Atchley said state leaders made an effort to reach out to judges and helped educate officers about how to best to identify — in ways that would hold up in court — that drivers were texting.
For example, officers were taught to watch more for drivers who looked down at their phones for long periods of time to make it more likely they sent messages instead of simply dialing numbers. Atchley said the methods have proven to be effective.
“You have to start with enforcing laws vigorously,” he said.
Josh Kauffman, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation, said in addition to enforcement the state has focused on educating drivers about the dangers of texting and driving.
“We feel it’s been successful in getting the word out,” Kauffman said.
Kansas law enforcement and transportation officials have also talked about educating the public to try to prevent texting-and-driving behavior as well, but Atchley said he believed the issue got more attention in Illinois, especially from high-ranking legislators, which has made it more of a priority for law enforcement officers there.
He said he’d heard one example of plainclothes officers in larger cities patrolling near carriers who sold newspapers in medians at stoplights and watched for drivers who were texting. Then they could radio to another officer in a patrol car about whom to pull over.
Atchley is not sure the Kansas texting law is tough enough. It carries a $60 fine plus court costs, and he said Kansas officers might not see that as worthwhile enough to pull someone over. A Kansas Highway Patrol spokesman has said troopers just want to make sure that “100 percent” it’s a violation before pulling someone over.
Atchley said that’s where more legal education can come in for officers.
He’s been working for years on research seeking to bring awareness to the damage distracted driving can cause, and he said the National Safety Council has estimated that 28 percent of crashes nationally are caused by drivers who were distracted by an electronic device, mainly a cellphone.
Atchley said the use of seat belts and preventing drunken driving rank as higher safety priorities in states than stopping distracted drivers, likely because advocates have pushed for decades on those two issues.
He said the use of cellphones and texting while driving will become more dangerous because the use of the devices can be addictive for most people. He advises drivers to put their phone in the trunk to eliminate any chance they will grab them when they ring or vibrate.
“No text,” Atchley said, “is worth losing your life over."