Analysis: Georgia's ban on texting while driving hardly enforced

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ATLANTA -- Motorists who are texting while driving may be risking life and limb. But they're at a pretty low risk for getting caught, recent law enforcement statistics show.

In the two years after a ban on texting while driving in Georgia took effect on July 1, 2010, state records reveal that fewer than 50 people a month have been convicted of the offense, for a total of 1,281 convictions as of Sept. 17. That's a small fraction of the 22,500 people convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs during the same time frame. The Department of Driver Services only tracks convictions, not the number of citations issued, DDS spokeswoman Susan Sports said.

Many law enforcement officers say the law is difficult to enforce. State troopers have issued an average of only 11 citations a month since the law took effect.

Lt. Les Wilburn, assistant troop commander for the Georgia State Patrol, said troopers have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone was texting at the wheel, and not merely dialing a number or talking. Most drivers simply stash their phone when a cop is in sight, he said.

"We're having the same obstacles we've had since the law came into effect," Lt. Wilburn said. "They're looking for us now, because they know it's against the law, and they don't do it while we're in a car sitting right next to them." The penalty is also paltry enough that many drivers dismiss the risk. A violation results in a $150 fine and one point on a person's driving record.

Enforcement of the texting law has been minimal in most counties, state records show. A notable exception is in Gwinnett County, where 665 thumb-happy drivers were convicted -- more than in all other Georgia counties combined.

By comparison, Cobb County has convicted 64 drivers, Fulton 43, Clayton 20 and DeKalb 16.

Gwinnett County Police spokesman Cpl. Edwin Ritter said officers diligently watch for distracted drivers during routine traffic patrols, but the department has not emphasized enforcing the texting while driving law.

"We enforce it just like we do any other law that's out there," Cpl. Ritter said. "If it's observed, [officers] are going to do something about it."

Studies show drivers who are texting are 23 times more likely to crash. A driver's eyes are off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds each time they send or receive a text, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Last year, there were 3,840 crashes attributed to cellphone use/distracted driving in Georgia, according to the Governor's Office of Highway Safety. Nine were fatal and 955 resulted in serious injuries.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies three types of distracted driving: visual (taking your eyes off the road), manual (taking your hands off the wheel) and cognitive (taking your mind off what you are doing). Texting is particularly dangerous because it combines all three types of distraction.

Georgia's law does not distinguish between a driver texting in a moving vehicle versus one that is stopped. Eldin Pita, 26, of Sugar Hill, was texting his father while stopped at a red light near the Mall of Georgia in July when a Gwinnett County Police motorcycle officer caught him red-handed.

Mr. Pita admitted his mistake and said he typically avoids texting in the car. A friend from New Jersey died several years ago in a wreck that occurred because the friend was looking down at his phone, he said.

"I think I do deserve (a ticket) if I was driving," Mr. Pita said. "But sitting at a red light? I don't know."

Mandi Sorohan worked hard in 2010 to convince state legislators to pass HB 23, a law banning both talking on a phone and texting while driving for motorists with a learner's permit who are younger than 18. The law was named after her 18-year-old son, Caleb Sorohan, who crashed his car while texting and driving on Dec. 15, 2009, and died.

A separate law, SB 360, passed at the same time to ban texting while driving for all motorists no matter their age.

Mandi Sorohan is disappointed that so few officers are enforcing the two laws. Several have told her they don't stop people for texting while driving, she said.

"I feel like they should at least pull people over and remind people [not to text and drive]," Ms. Sorohan said. "They don't even have to give a ticket, just let people know they are watching."

Some states, such as Florida and South Carolina, have no restrictions on phone use for drivers. In states with similar laws, such as Kentucky and North Carolina, enforcement is about on par with Georgia.

However, other states like California, New Jersey, Nevada and New York have laws that ban any handheld cellphone use. Police say such laws are much easier to enforce, because anyone holding a phone can be cited, and officers don't have to try to distinguish how a driver is using their phone.

"When they have it up to their ear, it's an obvious violation," said Senior Officer Anthony Rusterucci, of Voorhees Twp. in New Jersey. "And then when you pull them over and they say 'Oh, I had it on speaker phone,' that still doesn't make it right because the law says it's hands-free."

As a result, New Jersey averages 10 times as many tickets a month as Georgia had in two years.

"Is it a better law? It's a stricter law," Senior Officer Rusterucci said.

Georgia lawmakers considered but ultimately rejected a ban on all handheld cellphone use while driving when they imposed the no-texting law in 2010, said State Sen. Jack Murphy, R-Cumming, who sponsored the bill in the Senate.

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