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Texting while driving draws few citations

Since the ban took effect on Sept. 30, 2010, police have been writing one texting ticket for every 200 speeding tickets. Since the ban took effect on Sept. 30, 2010, police have been writing one texting ticket for every 200 speeding tickets. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / October 9, 2011

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Keith Rands was riding downtown last week with a colleague - someone whose attention at the wheel was already suspect - when he caught her tapping out a text message in traffic.

“I said, ‘What you’re doing is illegal,’ ’’ recalled Rands, a 23-year-old biochemist who was headed with his friend to celebrate the start of the Bruins’ season. He got the brushoff. “She said, ‘I don’t really care. No one gets caught.’ ’’

She’s just about right. Three drivers in Massachusetts, on average, get ticketed for texting each day - a drop in the bucket in a state with 4.7 million licensed drivers and more than 75,000 miles of road.

Since the ban took effect on Sept. 30, 2010, police have been writing one texting ticket for every 200 speeding tickets, making it essentially an honor system.

“If you know it’s a rule and no one’s enforcing it, you can pretty much tiptoe around it and break it,’’ said Rands, sighing as he waited for a bus Friday morning. “My friends, they still text.’’

State officials, police officers, and advocates contend that the texting ban has made Massachusetts safer by raising awareness about the danger of distracted driving, augmented by a public-education campaign.

But they acknowledge that the scant number of tickets signals infrequent enforcement - not widespread compliance. Through June 30, the most recent data compiled by the Registry of Motor Vehicles, police had issued 831 tickets ($100 for a first offense) for texting, e-mailing, or using the Internet while driving. Twenty-four were issued the first day the law went into effect, about as many as in a typical week since.

“When I hear those stats, that tells me we have a lot of work to do,’’ said Northborough Police Chief Mark K. Leahy, president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association.

Leahy and others in law enforcement cited several reasons tickets are rare: the law allows dialing and talking, giving violators an easy alibi; furtive texters, not holding the phone aloft, are difficult to spot; budget cuts have thinned police ranks; and catching texting is a lower priority than nabbing speeders and drunk drivers, a pursuit that receives funds for checkpoints.

In lieu of tickets, officers may be issuing warnings, a gentler measure not tracked by the state. They can also choose to write $35 tickets for improper use of a cellphone under an older law covering all sorts of impeded operation, such as eating or watching TV while driving. Those tickets are rare - 413 were written from Sept. 30 through June 30. But in a few communities, including Lowell and Somerville, they have outnumbered texting tickets.

Only Boxborough and Maynard had issued no texting tickets or improper phone-use tickets through June.

“We tend to be a very generous police department,’’ Boxborough Chief Warren B. Ryder said. “My officers hold their discretion highly, and they believe that most times giving a verbal warning or a written warning for an offense has a much more far-reaching effect.’’

Massachusetts is hardly isolated in the low-key level of enforcement, even though violators doubtless abound. A national survey of more than 1,200 adult drivers by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in 2009 found 13 percent admitted to texting in the car at least monthly, including 12 percent in states with bans. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, 43 percent admitted texting at least occasionally.

Of the 34 states with texting bans, 25 continue to allow handheld phone use for dialing and talking in the car, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, a national organization that supports state highway safety agencies.

“The texting law is not a magic bullet,’’ association spokesman Jonathan Adkins said. “We have to get to a point, like with drunk driving, where it’s not acceptable to text and drive anymore. We’re talking about changing cultural norms, and that isn’t going to happen in a year.’’

Handheld bans make it easier for police to spot infractions because merely holding the phone is grounds for a ticket, without the need to determine if someone is texting. Federally sponsored police details in New York and Connecticut that checked for phone violators prompted handheld use to drop significantly, though studies of checkpoints for other driving violations suggest the effects are likely to diminish over time.

Distracted driving, texting included, is a documented danger that causes thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of injuries, and millions of dollars in damage each year, and test-course experiments clearly show that talking and texting affect driving performance.

But there is no evidence yet from the road that handheld bans, much less texting prohibitions, have reduced crashes. And studies are inconclusive about whether hands-free calling is less risky than handheld calling; it may provide a false sense of security, Adkins said.

The safest thing is to avoid phones entirely when driving, but it is unlikely that a total ban will ever pass, said Representative Joseph F. Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat who has advocated for at least a handheld ban. The House twice passed such a prohibition, but the Senate balked. Wagner recently sponsored another bill to revive the idea.

“If we really want a texting law to be meaningful and have some teeth, I think we’ve got to ban the use of handheld cellphones,’’ he said. Until “we take the devices out of people’s hands, you’re going to get folks who will continue to do it.’’

The texting ban enacted last year was part of a broader package known as the Safe Driving Law, which also prohibited cellphone use of any kind by drivers under 18 - a group disproportionately represented in traffic crashes and fatalities - and lowered the number of speeding tickets and other moving violations that trigger automatic suspension. As a result, nearly 31,000 drivers were suspended in the first nine months after the law passed, compared with fewer than 19,000 in the entire year before, according to the Registry.

Registrar Rachel Kaprielian, whose agency is charged with administering the law and educating the public, considers it an overall success but concedes that the effect of the texting ban has been hard to measure.

“We’re comfortable with the awareness of the law out there,’’ Kaprielian said. “There’s been enough sort of media blitz and terrible stories in and around that subject that nobody would brag to their neighbor that they can text and drive. So I do think the stigma has definitely increased.’’

Jeff Larson, president of the Safe Roads Alliance, is skeptical.

“If you never hear of anybody at a cocktail party you go to, or in your neighborhood, or at the office, getting a ticket, then it never crosses your mind that you could get a ticket,’’ said Larson, whose nonprofit advocated for the bill. “It’s my belief that if police really wanted to enforce it, they would.’’

Brookline has written more tickets than any other city or town besides Boston - a fact that impressed resident Kathy Jungreis while she waited to cross Beacon Street in Coolidge Corner on a recent morning. “All right!’’ she said.

But even Brookline had written only 23 texting tickets, as well as nine for the lesser known phone-impeded operation, through June.

Jon Kempton said he had more faith in technology than the law. Kempton, a 25-year-old Verizon employee who was strolling Harvard Street on a day off, said he uses an application for his smartphone that allows him to dictate text messages when driving.

“I think most people know about [the law] and are thinking about it, but I don’t think it affects their behavior too much,’’ he said.

Informal observation of 100 eastbound cars on Beacon Street at that intersection underscored the difficulty of identifying texters. About three-quarters had their eyes on the road, their hands on the wheel. Thirteen had phone to ear - legal. One woman steered with her knees, eating a bagel twist and drinking coffee. One man cocked his head to look at an iPhone a passenger waved. Seven were looking down, in ambiguous fashion. And two clearly held phones up while studying or tapping them, though even that could mean dialing or checking a missed call.

It is rarely as easy to spot an offender as it was one day last summer when Captain Michael Gropman happened to pull behind a driver in his 20s who took a wide turn onto Cypress Street and veered over the median, back, and over again, head clearly down.

“Either he was drunk at noontime looking down at his beer, or he was texting,’’ said Gropman, commander of Brookline’s traffic division.

Gropman wasn’t even on patrol at the time, but he signaled for the man to pull over. The motorist did not try to claim he was dialing; though he was under no obligation to show Gropman his phone, he produced it when asked. The display showed a half-written text message.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.