Texting and Driving

As a secondary offense, a driver must be stopped for another violation before they can be ticketed for texting while driving.

Telegram photo illustration by Cole W. Eberle

COLUMBUS - More than 16 months after its implementation, local law enforcement continues to see problems with the state's "texting while driving" ban.

The law, which went into effect July 15, 2010, prohibits Nebraska drivers from sending or receiving cell phone text messages while behind the wheel. Anyone caught doing so faces a fine of $200 or more and loses three points on their driver's license.

Individuals facing these penalties, though, have been few and far between in Platte County.

Columbus Police Department has issued just one ticket and three warnings to texting motorists and Platte County Sheriff Jon Zavadil could recall only a few warnings for the violation.

The problem, law enforcement officials have claimed from its inception, is the texting ban is too difficult to enforce.

Similar to the seat belt law, Nebraska's texting ban is a secondary offense, meaning drivers must commit a separate violation to be stopped and ticketed.

It's also not illegal for adults to dial a cell phone while driving, and proving a person was texting, not dialing, would require an admission from the guilty party or subpoena of phone records - something that's unlikely to happen outside of a major accident investigation.

"Our hands are tied on this thing because catching somebody violating the law while they're texting is difficult, especially in the city," said Columbus Police Capt. Todd Thalken.

Thalken said "a few" people have admitted to the distraction following an accident, but "quite honestly, not a lot of people are going to tell you."

Zavadil believes some Platte County crashes have been the result of a driver distracted by texting, "but to prove that is another thing," he said.

"That was one of the concerns when the law first came out, that it was going to be almost unenforceable," said Zavadil.

Both men have seen texters while traveling Nebraska roads in their personal vehicles, however, they agree the frequency declines when they're operating a patrol car.

Thalken said it's frustrating not being able to prevent an activity that's as dangerous as drunk driving.

"I really don't know if the law has changed anything," he said.

Between 2002 and 2010, 1,119 traffic accidents involving "mobile phone distractions," not specifically limited to texting, occurred in the state, according to the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety. Six of those accidents resulted in fatalities and another 484 led to injuries.

Of those crashes, 363 involved teenage drivers, who are now banned from using a cell phone for any purpose while driving if they are younger than 18.

Through August of this year, 86 accidents linked to cell phones had been reported with 34 leading to injuries.

"It is really a very serious problem that everyone needs to pay attention to," said Fred Zwonechek, Nebraska Office of Highway Safety administrator.

And the national trend among lawmakers is to do just that.

According to the Governors' Highway Safety Association, 35 states and the District of Columbia have a text messaging ban for all drivers with all but three of those states classifying the offense as primary. An additional seven states ban text messaging only for novice drivers.

Many believe changing Nebraska's ban to a primary offense would make a difference, including the state lawmaker who introduced the bill.

Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff said his intention was for the texting ban to be a primary offense, which would allow law enforcement to stop drivers for that violation alone.

A compromised version of the bill where it's a secondary offense was accepted "to get something on the books," he said.

Harms plans to introduce future legislation to make the change back to a primary offense.

"I think in order to make it truly effective that's what's going to have to happen," Harms said.

While Zavadil believes the law would still be difficult to enforce, he hopes distracted driving can be reduced through publicity and education associated with the legislation.

That change, according to Zwonechek, has already begun as advertisements, public service announcements and educational materials have begun to change public behavior.

Additional improvements will come as law enforcement and prosecutors develop strategies and gain experience with the law, he said.

"Whatever draws attention to the issue does make a difference," Zwonechek said.

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