For officers attempting to uphold Alabama’s ban on texting while driving, which began in August, the difficulty for enforcement is caught in the specifics of the ordinance. While texting and driving is strictly prohibited, Alabama law still allows dialing the phone, making calls and using GPS voice activation.
Since August, 155 citations have been reported statewide, according to the Alabama Department of Public Safety.
“It’s too early to tell how effective it’s been,” Trooper Curtis Summerville said. “It’ll be a year or two before we can see.”
State troopers and city officers are paying close attention to indicators that a driver may be texting: weaving between lanes, nearly hitting or hitting surrounding cars and items, running off the road and inconsistent speed.
The law states that texting while driving is a primary offense in Alabama, meaning drivers can be stopped for that offense alone rather than as a secondary act to citations such as speeding, running a red light, or driving on the median.
Bill Miller, a public defender in Jacksonville, said he understands how difficult it can be to enforce a no-texting law. Equating it to the trouble with seatbelt enforcement, Miller said it is hard for police to see what is going on in another vehicle.
“It’s not like speeding,” he said. “An officer has to be right beside the car, looking right in. I think that’s a big reason why we haven’t seen too many cases yet.”
The law also prohibits texting while paused at stop signs or red lights. For the state troopers, the number of issued citations is about even between tickets given to those actively driving and those stopped on the roadways.
Though local agencies have written few citations, Chief Tommy Thompson of the Jacksonville Police Department recognizes it as dangerous business that is a sign of the times.
“I’ll be driving an unmarked car around (Jacksonville) and people are pulling out their phones to text or maybe they’re just dialing to make a call,” he said. “But there seem to be some awful long phone numbers out there.”
Thompson, who wants a distracted-driving law rather than only a texting ban, said the law has already and will continue to save lives. The problems now are holdouts who still do not see an issue with the practice.
“You think it’s just a second to look over it and you’ll be good,” he said. “But it takes just a second to run off the road. That’s just how quick things like that can happen.”
On both a city and state level, suggestions for staying out of trouble with the almost year-old ordinance focus on keeping eyes on the road.
Options presented by Summerville and Thompson included pulling off the road if a message is urgent or allowing passengers to handle phone calls and texting. Summerville also mentioned phone applications available that monitor whether a car is moving and will notify the sender if the driver is inaccessible.
“It might be a little drastic to put your phone in the trunk,” Summerville said. “But if it works, do it.”
Officers, parents and educators need to stress the dangers of texting on the road for young drivers especially, Thompson said. Having served as an officer for 42 years, he remembers when a driving under the influence citation was brushed off or excused away.
“It was a nothing charge back then,” he said. “Now it’s socially unacceptable all day, everywhere.”
While drunk driving and text driving are both extremely unsafe and risky, Summerville said he has noticed most officers referring to texting while driving as “a brand new DUI.”
“Driving drunk is horrible and it’s dangerous. But your eyes are open,” he said. “When you’re texting, your eyes are down and they’re completely off the road. Both are bad, but I think texting has become more so.”
Thompson said it is unfortunate that a few more people may have to get seriously injured or die due to texting while driving before people follow suit behind the ordinance.
“You know, everyone has to get really mad before you can get society to deem something reprehensible,” he said. “But hopefully people will get there before that happens. And when we do get to that point, it’ll make the roads safer, make it easier to enforce, and make it better to handle as a whole situation.”