Julia O'Malley: Texting laws aren't really so strict, and they're hard to enforce

Julia O'Malley

Before I wrote Monday's column about driving and cellphones, I called the Anchorage Police Department and asked spokeswoman Jennifer Castro whether it was illegal to update a Facebook status on a phone while sitting at a red light. Why? Let's just say I was curious.

Castro replied that the way that APD interprets the law, using an app like Facebook or anything else on your device in the car is illegal.

"The being stopped at a red light is not a 'green light' to texting or posting on FB or any of those other handheld devices/computerized behaviors," she said in an email. "Just because you're in park or stopped at a red light or stoplight ... you're still considered a motor vehicle in transport."

And so I told you, dear readers, that you can't text/Facebook/write emails while sitting at a red light.

It turns out Castro was wrong.

Monday's column inspired an array of feedback, including a phone message from a guy who said, "You guys are idiots!" and an email from Anchorage Rep. Les Gara. Gara helped pass the texting-and-driving law. He pointed out the stoplight error.

"We said, look, if you are sitting at a red light and your spouse sends you a note, 'I'll pick up the kids,' and you say, 'OK' ... we can't send you to jail for that," he explained later over the phone.

You can do it, legally, though looking at your phone at a stoplight isn't a good idea. We all know it's hard to put down the phone when you step on the gas. And you could still get into legal trouble.

Technically, if you get distracted sitting at the light and you fail to go when the light turns green, you could be cited for careless driving. If you cause an accident that hurts someone because you don't go when the light turns green, you could be charged with reckless driving, a criminal offense.

If you do text and drive? You might get cited but you likely won't get cited under the texting-and-driving law.

Castro said the anti-texting law is tough for police to enforce, and directed me to Rick Steiding, a detective with the traffic fatality unit. Steiding said it's hard for police to know whether a person is texting (not legal) or looking at a GPS mapping program (legal) or scrolling through a contact list to make a call (legal).

Police try to look for signs of distracted driving like slowing down or swerving. And they look at whether a motorist has his or her head down looking at a phone. But: "It's a very difficult thing to try to interpret what they are doing on their phone when you are 15 feet away in a moving car, trying to pay attention to your surroundings as well," Steiding said.

Sometimes a motorist will admit to texting during a traffic stop and get written up. More often, though, officers write citations for other things like careless driving, failure to use a turn signal, running a stoplight, etc. What percentage of those violations are related to texting or other phone distractions?

"I think it's probably extremely high," Steiding said.

Is there a way to change the law to make it easier for APD to cite people? He said no.

"Unless they go to strictly hands-free devices or just banning cellphones altogether, I think we're always going to have that issue," he said.

And, just so we aren't kidding ourselves, I should say that texting is a dangerous distraction but so is talking on your phone, which is totally legal. Not only does it obstruct your peripheral vision but studies have shown drivers can become so involved in a conversation, their brains don't process the information their eyes take in.

People on the phone are four times more likely to get into traffic accidents. Drivers who are on the phone have slower reaction and braking times than drivers who are legally drunk.

I mentioned this to Gara. He said a couple of his colleagues had introduced bills to ban driving and talking but there wasn't the will in Juneau to pass that kind of measure.

I also heard from Sean "Smitty" Smith, managing member for CMC-AK, a mobile phone safety and security company in Anchorage. The company has produced a Safe Mobile Systems app, available for Android phones, that shuts down everything on your phone when it's moving faster than 4 mph. No phone calls. No games. No text alerts. You can only call 911 or an "administrator," like a parent, who can disable the app via text while the car is in motion. An iPhone version is expected in the next few months. It costs $1.99. If your phone is anywhere near as busy and distracting as mine, it seems like a good investment.

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at jomalley@adn.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.


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