Texting while driving has been banned in Kentucky since 2011, but police officials say officers have difficulty enforcing the law because of how it’s written.
The legislation states that a violation occurs from using an “electronic communication device” while operating a motor vehicle, which technically places using a smartphone as a GPS device or even surfing the web outside the parameters of the law.
“In order for us to truly be able to say that we observed what looks like texting—for instance, if someone is pecking on the phone for 30 or 40 strokes, well then that’s obviously not a phone call at that point,” said Louisville Metro Police Lt. Joe Seelye, who commands the traffic unit.
Cell phone use is estimated to be responsible for 26 percent of all motor vehicle crashes, according to an annual injury and fatality report published by the National Safety Council. Texting is associated with a 5 percent of accidents reported.
“Same way with wearing a seatbelt—a lot of people are not readily to admit that they didn’t have a seatbelt on. Or they’re not readily to admit, ‘Yeah I was texting a friend,’” Seelye said.
As of July 3, LMPD issued 459 communication device violations, which dwarfs the combined total citations from the last three years since the legislation was implemented in 2011. From 2012 to June 26, police issued 2,791 communication violations statewide, according to data provided by Kentucky State Police. Of those, 735 were issued in Jefferson County.
Kentucky State Police spokesman Paul Blanton agreed with Seelye—discerning between those who are texting and those using their phone for various other reasons is arduous,
He said officers typically look for other behavior to identify distracted drivers.
“Strangely enough, the indicators for distracted driving are the same indicators for impaired driving — if they’re at a stop sign or a stop light, they may be there longer than they should be for traffic to clear or when the light turns green,” Trooper Blanton said.
Texting while driving is a primary offense—that means police can stop motorists for a suspected violation of the texting law.
Current penalties for texting and driving include a $25 fine for first-time offenders and $50 for subsequent offenses, plus court costs. Drivers also receive a three-point penalty on their license per violation. A bill to double the fines recently passed in the state House but died in the Senate.
Since 2012, Kentucky has had more than 400 traffic deaths with distraction, inattention or cell phone listed as a contributing factor for the accident. Of those, 37 were in Jefferson County. According to data provided by KSP, Jefferson County had about 34,900 accidents with the same factors.
According to a report released last year by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 72 percent of those between ages 40-59 said they used their phone while driving, which ties the percentage of people ages 19-24 who claim the same behavior. However, 82 percent of adults 25-39 reported using their phone while driving, with 43 percent claiming phone use regularly while driving.
“Whether it’s, they think that whatever’s going on in their life is more important than the safety of everyone around them—it’s a very selfish thing to text and drive or to be even distracted behind the wheel because driving a vehicle. It’s a dangerous thing to do,” Blanton said.