When Michigan’s ban on texting while driving takes effect Thursday, police will be able to pull over motorists solely for using their cell phones to send or look at text messages or e-mails.
Some in law enforcement say the similarities between dialing a cell phone, which remains legal, and texting, which will cost drivers $100 for a first offense, will make the ban difficult to enforce. Others, however, say it will be relatively straightforward for officers to spot and ticket violators.
Officers already see people trying to juggle driving with texting or e-mailing, said Michigan State Police 1st Lt. Matt Bolger, who handles legislative outreach and helps educate police agencies about new laws. With new power to ticket those drivers, he said the message about the law should be clear.
“If you haven’t been texting, you have nothing to worry about,” Bolger said. “If you have been, you need to stop.”
Bolger is scheduled to review new laws, including the texting while driving ban, at a meeting this week of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police. Tom Hendrickson, the association’s executive director, said the group supported the legislation but there are concerns it will be difficult on police.
“If you view a motorist who you think is text messaging, are they dialing? It is going to be extremely difficult for law enforcement to apply that,” Hendrickson said. “If a traffic stop is made and a motorist says they were not texting but dialing … what is law enforcement to do?”
It is doubtful, Hendrickson said, that police would have access to a driver’s cell phone records to confirm that they were texting. Given that a violation is a civil infraction that carries a $100 fine the first time and a $200 fine for a subsequent offense, the effort to check likely wouldn’t be worthwhile.
Texting will be a primary offense, meaning police may pull over motorists just for using cell phones to send text messages. And no points would be added to a driver’s record for a violation of the text messaging ban. The law taking effect does not ban using cell phones to make calls while driving.
Brett Pehrson, Coldwater’s public safety director, said his department plans to make education about the texting law part of its driver safety education in schools. And he’s hopeful that motorists will begin to better understand the dangers of cell phone use while driving.
“There’s no doubt, at times it will be difficult to enforce,” Pehrson said. “If they’re in violation, officers don’t have a whole lot of time.”
Capt. Rick Walters of the Holland Police Department said it’s hard to tell how aggressively the new law will be enforced. In some cases, he said that will depend on individual officers as well as main priorities while on patrol, such as 911 response. But texting, like drunken driving or lack of seatbelt use, is a public safety issue, he noted.
“It’s going to take law enforcement some time to adjust,” Walters said. “It’s going to take a while for the public to adjust.”
Regardless of how strictly police enforce the ban, local departments and the state are rolling out efforts to educate the public about the law. Billboards going up around Michigan remind drivers to hold off on text messaging, carrying the phrase “txt back L8R” and one of two accompanying messages: “OR PAY $100” or “IT’S THE LAW.”
The billboards are part of the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning’s “Thumbs on the Wheel” campaign, which kicks off Monday and will include a televised public service announcement. The potential fine likely will help motivate drivers to refrain from texting, said agency spokeswoman Anne Readett.
Like the change to laws requiring seat belt use, it will take time before the text messaging ban leads drivers to stop fiddling with their phones, but social pressure is increasing, said Paul Green, a professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute who studies the effects of distractions for motorists.
“Laws cause changes to what is socially acceptable,” Green said. “The public recognizes the risks associated with texting is much greater. It is more socially acceptable to say to people: `Don’t text.”’
When Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed the texting legislation in Detroit in April, Oprah Winfrey was watching via satellite as part of a broadcast of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Winfrey, with a campaign that started in January, has raised the profile of fight against distracted driving.
“It’s changing the social norm,” Green said of the increasing public awareness. “That is very hard to do.”
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