Nearly two months have passed since an Alabama law took effect making it illegal to send or read a text while operating a motor vehicle, but local law enforcement agencies haven’t exactly been handing out tickets for the offense on Calhoun County roads. The Anniston, Jacksonville and Oxford police departments and the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office all said they’ve issued no citations for the offense.
Statewide, that puts Calhoun County in very good company. Alabama State Trooper Charles Dysart said statewide numbers for local agencies weren’t available, but in the first month of the law, the Department of Safety issued 14 tickets on Alabama highways.
At $25 for a first offense, that means the state raised $350 for the General Fund under the new law.
But the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, said raising money and issuing tickets wasn’t the point of the new measure. It was designed to get people to put their cell phones down after getting behind the wheel. In that regard, maybe the lack of tickets means the bill is a success.
But probably not, McClendon said.
“The fact is, when I drive to Montgomery, I can see people texting,” McClendon said. “I just saw some yesterday when I drove there.”
Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Matthew Wade can see them too, just not when he’s on duty.
“I think people know when they see a marked car to put their phones away,” Wade said. “But I see them when I’m not in a Sheriff’s Office vehicle.”
Anniston police Capt. Shane Denham said even if someone is spotted using the phone, the law doesn’t make it a clear-cut case to issue a ticket.
“It’s hard to enforce at all,” Denham said about the ban. “Just the way it was written, there’s a difference between texting or just looking up a phone number. There’s any number of things people can do on their smart phones.”
Further complicating things, McClendon said, is an apparent confusion about what exceptions the law makes about texting itself, in that the law makes no exceptions at all.
“If you want to text in your car, you have to pull off the road,” McClendon said, refuting a misconception that the law allows for drivers to text at stop lights or stop signs. It doesn’t.
McClendon said the law hasn’t been in effect long enough to assess its results. He also disagrees that the law is as hard to enforce as some have claimed, having heard firsthand, he said, that local agencies throughout the state have issued several tickets. But even if that wasn’t the case, it’s beside the point, he said.
“It’s hard to enforce open container laws too,” McClendon said. “But no one thinks that shouldn’t be illegal.”
McClendon also said the law makes it clear across city and county lines that texting is not OK in Alabama, so at the very least, there’s some consistency.
Jacksonville police Chief Tommy Thompson said that makes the law useful when dealing with the student population that occupies his city for much of the year.
“They can’t say, ‘Oh, I’m from here, or there, so I didn’t know you couldn’t text,’” he said.
Not that Jacksonville police have had that conversation with anyone yet. Thompson said no tickets have been written at the agency, and he hasn’t heard of any traffic stops or warnings being issued.
Thompson said he believes the law has helped cut down on texting on the roads, but like McClendon, he knows there’s a lot probably still going on.
“I’m sure with all the students we got here, there’s texting going on right now as we speak,” he said.
Star staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.