Police see problems with enforcing texting ban

Police pulling drivers over for alleged text messaging violations starting at the end of the month will find the new law tough to enforce, according to local police groups.

Wayne Sampson, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs’ of Police Association, said there are going to be “very serious problems trying to enforce the law.”

Sampson complained police have not received any training guidelines from the state on how to enforce the new law and said each department has been left to create its own guidelines. Other police officials interviewed by the News Service also said they have not received training on the new law.

“We have not heard from anybody at all,” said Sampson, the retired Shrewsbury police chief. “There was no training offered. But this falls into a much larger problem in the lack of proper training for law enforcement in Massachusetts.”

But Sampson added the lack of specific training is not the biggest issue. Differentiating between someone texting and someone dialing a phone will be the hard part in enforcing the law.

“There is no way that an officer going down the street is going to be able to tell what somebody is doing when they are looking down in their lap,” he said. “We are going to have a problem in any of the actual prosecutions of these offenses.”

It will be difficult for police to testify in these cases as to what they actually saw, Sampson said.
“It is going to be very difficult to detect. If someone has a phone, it is not illegal to make a phone call,” said Lowell Deputy Police Chief Arthur Ryan. “It is really going to be up to an officer’s discretion.”

The state’s new texting ban goes into effect Sept. 30, prohibiting all drivers from sending texts while on the road. The law still allows adult drivers to punch up phone numbers and talk on their cell phones while driving, but prohibits teens from using any mobile devices on the road.

“It is going to be very difficult to tell what the person is doing, if they are holding the device down in their lap and looking down, it is going to be difficult to tell exactly what they are doing,” Sampson said.
In more serious cases, involving an accident, police will obtain summons from telephone providers to prove the person was texting or on the phone at the time of the accident, he said.

“We don’t want the public to think they are off the hook,” Sampson said.

If the Legislature had banned the use of all handheld devices, Sampson said, enforcement would have been easier. The law allows police to pull over drivers if they suspect them of texting, without needing another suspected offense. The governor signed the legislation (H 4795) on July 2. During a signing ceremony, Patrick called the legislation “a step in the right direction,” and added he thought a full debate on whether to restrict all handheld cell phones should be the next step.

Lt. Marie Cleary from the Wellesley Police Department said texting while driving could be difficult to detect, and compared it to spotting a drunk driver. Distracted drivers drive erratically or slower, and often swerve into different lanes. She said the law will be easier to enforce during daylight because officers can see someone typing or making a call while behind the wheel. At night, it will be a harder to spot, she said. If someone denies using their mobile device, the officer will have to use their discretion on whether or not to ticket, she said.

“A lot of people caught doing something wrong will be honest. They won’t necessarily deny it, but will make excuses, similar to speeding. Our officers will use their own discretion on whether to issue a written or verbal warning or a summons,” she said.

Police officers said they believe the new law will dramatically cut down on the number of accidents caused by texting.

“With these stricter mandates, where they could lose their license, they might think twice about before using their phones, think about the potential danger,” Cleary said. “Teens feel they are invincible. I think they will pay attention now.”

Ryan, from the Lowell Police Department, compared it to the seat belt law, noting more people became aware of the dangers of traveling unbelted once the law changed. Ryan said he believes texting could be as dangerous as drunken driving.

“You really have to take your eyes off the road when you are texting. You are manually focused on the exercise. You can’t possibly focus on what’s on the road,” he said. “The biggest benefit is that people will now be aware of how dangerous it is. The Legislature deemed it so dangerous, it is now illegal.”

The Registry of Motor Vehicles is working on an advertising blitz to make drivers aware of the new law. They plan to roll out ads in airports, train stations, and highway toll booth signs, among other places.

“The message, obviously, is texting while driving will be against the law,” said Ann Dufresne, a spokeswoman for the RMV. “And for junior operators, the strongest message to change their driving behaviors are the consequences. If you use your phone, you will lose your license.”

There will be a “zero tolerance” attitude for young drivers among law enforcement, Dufresne said. The first offense is a 60-day suspension. Teens will also be required to pay fines, go back to driving school, and retake written tests.

Adult drivers caught breaking the new law will pay a $100 fine for the first offense, $250 fine the second time, and $500 for every subsequent offense. It will not be considered a moving violation, which would lead to insurance premium increases.