Two years ago this month, a state law banning Hoosiers from texting and driving went into effect.
Lawmakers cited an increase in traffic crashes and research that revealed distracted driving was among the top killers of teen drivers.
The law made texting or emailing while driving a Class C infraction, punishable by a fine up to $500.
Yet part of the problem remains unsolved, police say.
It’s nearly impossible to enforce.
Since the law took effect, fewer than 400 drivers have been ticketed for texting and driving, according to Indiana State Police data.
To me, it seems like the law is having almost no effect because car crashes haven’t gone down across the state, said Lisa Hollister, trauma program manager at Parkview Regional Medical Center. But unless it’s enforced, there’s not much we can do about it.
In 2011, 3,331 people were killed in crashes across the U.S. involving a distracted driver, compared with 3,267 in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
In addition, 10 percent of injury crashes in the U.S. in 2011 were reported as distraction-affected crashes, the Department of Transportation reports.
Although those numbers may seem appalling, the bigger problem is that the numbers continue to grow each year, Hollister said.
Indiana lawmakers have taken steps in recent years to prohibit the use of phones, but more could be done, Hollister said.
In 2009, the Indiana General Assembly updated the state’s graduated driver’s license law to prohibit Hoosier drivers younger than 18 from talking on cellphones or texting while driving.
In 2011, lawmakers crafted a law to prohibit drivers from typing, sending or reading text messages or emails.
‘Maybe a handful’
It’s almost an unenforceable law the way it stands now, Whitley County Sheriff Mark Hodges said. It’s not illegal to use your cellphone as a phone, so it’s difficult to determine whether a person is texting or making a call.
Hodges said although his officers are aware of the authority to enforce texting and driving laws, he doesn’t believe any citations have been written since it went into effect two years ago.
Fort Wayne police have written 11 tickets for drivers caught texting and driving in the past two years, according to department data.
We have very few arrests that we’ve made for that, because it’s very difficult for officers to be sure that texting was the problem, Chief Rusty York said.
In Allen County, sheriff’s deputies have issued maybe a handful of tickets since the law was enacted, department spokesman Jeremy Tinkel said.
Law enforcement departments in other counties also struggle to track the number of texting drivers who are cited, primarily because there are so few people caught in the act, officials said.
Even when there’s been an accident, we would probably have to subpoena to get their phone records to tell us if they were texting, Wells County Sheriff Monte Fisher said. It’s not like we can just grab the phone and check.
Fisher said he doesn’t believe any tickets have been written by his officers since the law went into effect.
DeKalb County officers have issued four tickets and two warnings in two years, Sheriff Don Lauer said.
The Kosciusko County Clerk’s Office reports handing out seven tickets through the county since the law began, Kosciusko County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Chad Hill said.
Indiana State Police have ticketed 371 drivers and written warnings for 381 drivers since July 2011, according to department data.
We know the number (of tickets written), aren’t actually reflecting how many people are out there using their phone, said Ron Galaviz, Indiana State Police spokesman. But it’s a difficult law to enforce.
Although lawmakers intended the law to be a primary enforcement tool, Galaviz said, instead it is more often a secondary violation to another driving error – such as driving left of center, weaving from lane to lane or quick stops.
We only have limited power with the law we have right now, Galaviz said.
Despite the challenge of catching and ticketing drivers who break the law, there are advantages to the legislation, said Linda Hathaway, director of education and curriculum at the McMillen Center for Health Education.
Last fall, the McMillen Center and Parkview Trauma Center created a program geared at educating students and adults about the dangers of distracted driving, especially from cellphones.
We come at it from the brain science point of view and talk about why it’s not possible to do a good job at both driving and texting, Hathaway said.
Students learn that when a text message sounds, the brain produces dopamine – a chemical that creates feel good feelings in the brain, Hathaway explained.
The dopamine creates a feeling of excitement about the message, leaving the text recipient wondering who is on the other end, or if there’s an emergency, she said.
It’s distracting and it’s something that we find very hard not to answer because it is so tempting, Hathaway said.
Students are encouraged to silence their phones, or stick it in a bag in the backseat while operating a vehicle.
Definitely putting it on silent so you’re not aware makes a big difference, she said.
And despite frustration from officers, the 2011 law is working in some instances, Galaviz said.
It’s not a completely bad law, he said. People are being cited for it, but as time goes on and we see where the trend goes, we’ll just have to see from there what’s next.