RI’s Texting While Driving Law Proving Ineffective

Friday, February 22, 2013


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Saying that RI's current law against texting while driving hasn't worked, a group of lawmakers are proposing much harsher penalties to get drivers to put down their phones.

Rhode Island’s law against texting while driving is proving ineffective at stopping the behavior and now, slightly more than two years after its original enactment, lawmakers are moving forward with plans to stiffen the penalties for those caught composing, reading or sending such a message while behind the wheel.

A bill introduced in the House last week by Representative Charlene Lima would fundamentally alter the way the Ocean State enforces its current law against texting while driving and would put in place a new system where, after their first offense, offenders would be required by law to install a device in their vehicle that prevents text messaging and cell phone calls that aren’t to 911 or another emergency number.

The bill comes in reaction to the original law’s inability to curb the behavior but one of its key provisions is facing stiff resistance from the Rhode Island branch of the ACLU, which vows to fight its implementation as a violation of “civil liberties.”

Two of a Kind

Under Lima’s legislation, which has three co-sponsors in Rep. John Lombardi, Joseph McNamara and Joseph Shekarchi, anyone caught driving without the device after being ordered to install it would have their license suspended for a year for a first offense, two years for all subsequent offenses and the law itself would not allow for “any judge or magistrate” to waive the requirement.

If put in place, Rhode Island drivers would face some of the stiffest penalties in the country for texting while driving but while her bill adds a new wrinkle to the state’s efforts to curb a behavior that studies have shown makes drivers 23 times more likely to get into a crash, it’s not the only effort to increase penalties for texting while driving currently moving forward in the Ocean State.

Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, an outspoken opponent of texting while driving and one of the founding fathers of the state’s current law, has ramped up his efforts to eliminate the issue by helping pitch legislation that would empower the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal to suspend a driver’s license if they’re caught engaging in the behavior more than once.

The measures, Kilmartin and Lima both say, are to enhance the current law on the books, a law they believe has proven ineffective at changing the behavior of Rhode Island’s drivers despite yielding nearly 600 tickets and more than $36,000 in fines in the first two and a half years after its inception.

Inside the Numbers

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Rhode Island drivers were issued 576 tickets in the first 31 months following the state's texting while driving ban.

Rhode Island’s current law, signed into the books by Governor Don Carcieri in November 2009 after a 10-year fight by Kilmartin to get the initiative passed, made it illegal to send, read or write a text message while driving and imposed fines of $85 for a first offense, $100 for a second offense and $125 for a third or subsequent offense.

“While a member of the Pawtucket Police Department, I was nearly struck by a driver who was distracted on a cell phone,” Kilmartin said when asked why he spearheaded the effort to get texting while driving banned. “Texting and distracted driving is now one of the greatest dangers facing drivers on our roads, and is as dangerous, if not more so, than driving drunk. And, it is 100 percent avoidable.”

In the time since that bill was passed, local and state police officers have issued at least 576 tickets to drivers for texting, but just one has been issued to a repeat offender.

In addition, of those nearly 600 tickets issued from the time the law passed until June of last year—the most recent data readily available from the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal—267 have come from the State Police, meaning local municipalities have, on average, issued less than nine tickets apiece since the law went into effect.

Providence leads all cities and towns in the state with 39 tickets issued with Warwick and Johnston right behind at 36 and 33, respectively but, in all, 17 of the state’s local police departments have issued five or fewer tickets for the infraction.

And not all of those tickets have led to convictions either. Rhode Island drivers had successfully had at least 133 of those citations dismissed, either by claiming their good driving record or by having the charges dropped outright.

In the first 31 months since the law was enacted, just 131 drivers who went to court and pled their case were found guilty, while 116 were convicted after failing to show to their hearing and 177 chose to pay the fine in lieu of contesting it in court.

Still a Concern

Despite the efforts of law enforcement, Kilmartin says the current law simply isn’t working well enough to stop the behavior in question and the true impact of texting while driving isn’t reflected in the amount of tickets issued thus far.

“Penalizing drivers for texting is a strong deterrent, but we also need to change people’s behaviors,” he said. “In order to change people’s behaviors, we need to continually educate the public about the dangers of texting while driving.”

Lima agrees the law hasn’t had the effect it was meant to.

“You see it all over the place,” she said. “You see people looking down at stop signs with their phones in their hands, not paying attention to the road, you see people swerving, I think it’s still going on. People don’t learn their lesson. They’re not getting caught because it’s such a difficult thing to catch people doing.”

Kilmartin has launched a campaign with AT&T to bring the national company’s “It Can Wait” program to high schools across the state but it’s his latest effort that may have the widest-reaching effect.

The Attorney General is working with lawmakers in the General Assembly on an amendment to his original law that would make it possible for drivers to have their licenses suspended for three months after a second texting while driving conviction and for six months following any subsequent convictions.

Kilmartin says the change is necessary because technology has evolved dramatically in the two years since the law first went in place and the behavior is now more dangerous than ever.

“More and more studies have shown that texting while driving is as dangerous as driving under the influence, and I believe, just as with DUI, there needs to be a bigger deterrent for those that haven’t learned the consequences of these acts from the first ticket,” he said. “When I drafted the no texting while driving law, technology was fairly limited and cell phones were used for making calls and texting. Now, almost everyone has a smartphone and drivers can text, connect to the Internet, post on Facebook and Twitter all while behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. Technology has created more distractions.”

A Device for Change

The comparison between texting while driving and driving under the influence isn’t a new one and is one of the primary motivations for Lima’s bill.

In fact, the Cranston Democrat has been a proponent in the past of the state mandating the implementation of the Ignition Interlock Device in cars for drivers convicted of a DUI.

Making the leap to having a system for texting offenders, she said, just makes sense.

“I think texting while driving is such a dangerous and pervasive problem,” she said. “I’ve always been a proponent of protecting people’s individual rights, I’ve been opposed to mandatory seat belts because I think the government’s role is to educate not dictate issues of personal safety but I think with texting … I don’t think they’re going to stop unless there’s a severe penalty or until, unfortunately, there’s a tragedy.”

A Matter of Liberty?

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The ACLU says it will oppose Rep. Lima's bill because it infringes on the "civil liberties" of Rhode Island drivers.

Hillary Davis, a Policy Associate at the ACLU of Rhode Island who has argued against Lima’s previous attempt at passing this legislation, says comparing the two offenses to each other is like comparing apples and oranges.

“The state of Rhode Island has determined driving while intoxicated or driving while under the influence to be a criminal matter, while texting while driving is a civil infraction, so their penalties by definition should be different,” she said.

Davis says the ACLU believes it is still too soon to tell how effective the state’s law against texting while driving has been but, even so, that Lima’s bill carries “serious due process concerns”.

In addition to questioning how much of a cost the proposed device would be for drivers and legality it would have in banning a driver from taking cell phone calls, which is currently not illegal, Davis says the language in the bill regarding license suspensions is “exceptionally broad.”

“The bill indefinitely bars a driver from operating any vehicle without a text-blocking device and subjects them to license suspension – again, a far larger penalty than intended under the law – even if the driver does not attempt to text while driving, or even have their phone with them at the time,” she said.

Davis even questioned whether or not the technology currently exists to impose such a law, though Lima says she has researched it and has received information from a number of companies that make such a product.

“There are some devices and apps which prevent texting while driving, but this technology is not available for all phones – leading us to wonder whether a person penalized under this legislation would be required to purchase a particular phone, further adding to their costs,” Davis said. “The devices and apps which do exist come with their own safety and privacy concerns; some are general signal jammers, which raises questions about the effect on other nearby cars and emergency vehicles, while others in the works use RFID chips, which carry their own issues related to location tracking and monitoring.”

The Battleground

Davis says the ACLU plans to testify against Lima’s legislation but would not comment on how the organization feels about Kilmartin’s proposed amendment to the current law until it is written and submitted to the General Assembly.

Regardless, Lima says she is willing to fight for the issue and believes Rhode Island drivers need a stronger penalty for putting themselves and others in danger while behind the wheel ... even if it takes “years to get passed.”

“Unfortunately, a lot of times, we react to things instead of being proactive but I think it will find its place,” she said. “It’s something we have to do to prevent such dangerous activity on the roads.”


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