Politics & Government

From May 6: Few of Kentucky's 3.15 million drivers cited for texting while driving

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FRANKFORT — Fewer than 1,000 of Kentucky's 3.15 million drivers have been cited by police more than two years after the state banned texting while driving for everyone and cellphone use for drivers younger than 18, state records show.

Police issued 976 citations for violating the law from January 2011 to Feb. 6, 2013, the most recent data available from the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

No driver has been cited in 26 of Kentucky's 120 counties since the law went into effect in January 2011. Jefferson County, the most populous in Kentucky, led the state with 126 citations.

In Lexington, police doled out 68 citations for texting while driving. No teen has been cited for using a cellphone while driving in Lexington, according to court records.

Police say they cite so few people for texting while driving because it's difficult to tell whether someone is texting, dialing a phone or doing any number of other things, such as looking at a digital map.

"For the most part, police officers are going to be in a marked cruiser, so if they spot us they are going to put the phone down or try to hold it down so it's not in plain view," said Kentucky State Police trooper Michael Webb.

In addition, discerning a 17-year-old from an 18-year-old in a moving car is nearly impossible, officers say, making it tough to enforce the law banning cellphone use by drivers younger than 18.

Drivers or passengers involved in accidents sometimes tattle on themselves, but police say people often lie if they know they could face charges.

"You have to be able to prove that they were texting, or they have to admit that they were texting," said Lexington police Cmdr. Thomas Curtsinger.

Kentucky's problems enforcing the texting ban are common in other states, said Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, a state transportation highway group. Kentucky is one of 39 states that ban text ing while driving for adults.

"We are at the beginning of dealing with this problem," Adkins said. "We are where we were with drunk driving 20 years ago. But Kentucky is definitely on the right track."

Increasingly, states are banning all hand-held communication devices, which police say is easier to enforce. Ten states and the District of Columbia have such bans.

In March, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a report that found hands-free devices were safer than traditional cellphones.

"I think that we will see more states moving toward bans on hand-held devices in the future as we get more and more data," Adkins said.

Despite the difficulties in enforcement, Curtsinger and Webb said Kentucky's law has helped curb distracted driving, the leading cause of accidents in Kentucky, according to Kentucky State Police collision data.

"Before the texting ban, there was really no media campaign about distracted driving," Webb said.

Still, it's too early to tell whether the texting ban has resulted in fewer accidents or fatalities.

In 2011, distraction was cited as a factor in 49,821 collisions that killed 144 people in Kentucky. Cellphones were cited specifically as a factor in 1,040 accidents that killed eight people. Those numbers were virtually unchanged from 2010.

The number of accidents involving cellphones probably is under-reported, police said. For example, state police can check only three contributing factors for each driver on state accident reports.

"Inattention could mean cellphones as well," Webb said.

Nationally, 3,331 people died in crashes involving distracted drivers, up slightly from 3,267 deaths in 2010.

Lexington police pointed to cellphones as a contributing factor in 26 accidents last year, but that number has jumped to 38 this year. Cellphones were declared a contributing factor in 13 accidents during March alone, Curtsinger said.

Lexington police reports do not indicate whether the person was texting or talking on a cellphone at the time of the accident, Curtsinger said.

Texting is more dangerous than talking, studies show.

People who text are 23 times more likely to have an accident than someone who is talking on a phone, according to a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

A National Transportation Safety Board study found that texting takes a driver's eyes off the road for 23 seconds. That means a driver traveling 55 mph could go the length of five football fields without looking at the road.

"We know that texting while driving is very comparable to drunk or impaired driving," Webb said.

But plenty of people still do it.

A 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that at least 31 percent of drivers younger than 65 reported they had sent or received a text message while driving within 30 days of taking the survey.

One of the deadliest Kentucky highway accidents in recent history involved a truck driver and his cellphone.

The National Transportation Safety Board found that Kenneth Layman, 45, of Jasper, Ala., might have been on the phone when his truck crashed into a 15-passenger van carrying 10 members of a Kentucky Mennonite community in March 2010.

Data showed that Layman had received 69 calls or text messages before the crash, and the agency concluded that Layman was distracted when his truck crossed the median on Interstate 65 about 75 miles south of Louisville, colliding with the van. The crash killed 10 people, including Layman.

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