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Texting and driving ban: Tough to enforce

Since a law banning texting and driving went into effect in 2008, Red Wing Police officers and Goodhue County deputies have only ticketed 18 people. Still, officers say it's a good law. (Photo illustration by Sarah Gorvin)

In 2008, a law banning texting and driving went into effect in Minnesota. The statute makes it illegal to compose, read or send any electronic messages -- emails and texts -- or to browse the Internet while behind the steering wheel of a vehicle while it's a part of traffic. And yes, that does include a vehicle stopped at stoplights or at a standstill in traffic.

But since then, only a handful of people in Goodhue County have actually been cited for the texting and driving.

In the last five years, Red Wing Police officers have written only eight citations under that statute. Goodhue County Sheriff's deputies have written only slightly more, coming in with just 10 tickets.

Conversely, cellphone use in the United States is extremely widespread. The Pew Research Center reported that as of September 2012, nearly 85 percent of Americans own a cellphone. What's more, nearly half of all Americans own a smart phone.

So why aren't there more citations being issued for texting and driving?

"It is a difficult case to prove without an admission from the individual," Police Capt. Darold Glander said.

"Most people aren't going to admit doing it," echoed Red Wing Police Department training specialist Joe Juliar, adding that he has never issued a texting citation.

Part of the problem is that most cellphone activities -- such as dialing a phone number -- are still perfectly legal. That can make it difficult for an officer to recognize whether the driver is actually texting, Glander said.

Red Wing Police Officer Mark Mandelkow said that if he does stop someone on suspicion of texting and driving, the driver generally denies doing anything illegal.

"Usually they'll say, 'I was dialing a number,'" he said.

If that's the case, there is little the officer can do.

"In this situation the burden of proof for issuing a texting citation would not be met," Glander said.

Other situations, however, are a little easier to spot. Goodhue County Sgt. John Blue said both people he's issued texting citations to were clearly breaking the law.

"Their thumbs were working so much. It was obvious it was more than just dialing the number," Blue said. He added that in both of those situations, the drivers were using cell phones with slide-out keyboards. Making his job even easier, Blue said, is that he was in an unmarked Jeep Cherokee, which sits higher than most passenger cars and allowed him to look down into vehicles. Both Juliar and Mandelkow said catching someone actually texting and driving in a marked squad car is next to impossible.

"As soon as I get into a marked car and drive it, wow, everyone's perfect (at) driving," Juliar said. "To sit there and try to catch people doing something wrong in a marked car is difficult."

But even with the difficulties that come with enforcing the texting and driving statute, all three officers say they're glad the law is in the books.

"It's a nice law to have; I totally agree with it. But it is hard to enforce," Mandelkow said, adding that the same could be said of any traffic law. "Just because it's illegal, people don't stop speeding, driving without a license, (they) fail to register a vehicle. The list is endless really."

"It's difficult to catch them," Blue added. "But it's a good law."

"It certainly does keep people in check," Juliar said.

Sarah Gorvin
Sarah Gorvin has been with the Republican Eagle for two years and covers education, business and crime and courts. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 2010 with a  journalism degree.