Officers say they see distracted drivers all of the time, but violations are difficult to prove
Nashville police officer Burl Johnson was driving down Interstate 440 earlier this year when a white pickup truck in front of him began to swerve off the road.
Most motorists become more conscientious when a patrol car comes into focus in their rearview mirror. But as the interstate curved to the right, the driver drifted over the white fog line before he jerked the wheel and re-entered his lane.
It was the kind of erratic driving Johnson typically sees from drunken drivers, but this was midday during the workweek. And when Johnson drove alongside the truck, he saw the reason for the shady driving wasn't alcohol.
It was a cellphone.
Johnson pulled the driver over, gave him a stern lecture about the dangers of distracted driving and then did something area police officers rarely do. He wrote a ticket for texting while driving.
Although law enforcement officers have come to view distracted driving in general, and texting while driving specifically, as a life-or-death issue — and maybe even the new frontier for road safety — police officers in Tennessee have issued a minuscule number of tickets since the state became the ninth in the nation to ban texting while driving in 2009.
The Tennessean reviewed traffic records for 15 Middle Tennessee law enforcement agencies and found that they've combined to issue just 389 texting-while-driving tickets since the law took effect in 2010.
The Metro Nashville Police Department, by far the largest in the area, wrote 52 tickets in 2012 and 18 through the first six months of this year.
Police say the state law is hard to enforce because proving a motorist sent or read an electronic message while driving, which is what the state law prohibits, can be complicated. Drivers often say they were dialing their phone, which the law expressly allows, and not texting if they are pulled over.
In those scenarios, officers say they can write traffic tickets for other violations such as the due-care law, which requires that motorists provide the proper amount of attention to the road while driving. THP officials said they don't specifically track the number of due-care citations.
Brentwood's Doug Ralls, whose 23-year-old son, Brian Ralls, was killed by a distracted driver in 2009, says police should be doing more.
"Difficult to enforce is not impossible to enforce," said Ralls, who has become an advocate for stronger enforcement since his son's death.
The issue is especially critical in Tennessee, which has the highest percentage of fatalities caused by cellphone use in the U.S., according to data released in July by the National Safety Council. While local law enforcement agencies think the rankings might be skewed because of differences in how states report data, they agree distracted driving is a problem in Tennessee. And they say texting while driving is especially dangerous. In the four seconds it takes to send or read a typical text message, a vehicle driving 55 miles per hour travels the length of a football field.
University of Kansas professor Paul Atchley, a leading expert on distracted driving, said merely passing a law changes some people's behavior. But, Atchley said, it takes enforcement by police to truly make a difference.
Putting a law in place sends a strong message about what is not acceptable behavior, he said, but "you need to have enforcement."
"When laws are not enforced, people's behavior doesn't change," he said.
Analysis shows few tickets
Meanwhile, evidence of the impact cellphones have had on safety continues to accumulate.
"Since 2008, we've had 377 fatality crashes," said Metro police Sgt. Bob Sheffield, who leads the department's aggressive-driving unit. "Out of those, 139 were attributed to drivers running off the road or failing to maintain lanes. Of course I can't say definitively in all of them they were attributed to texting or cellphone use, but there was some action that caused that driver not to be able to maintain their lane of travel."
Sheffield sees it more and more, and he suspects that most single-car wrecks are caused by distracted driving — and that cellphones are a leading culprit.
"It has to be able to be attributed to distraction. Why else wouldn't you be able to maintain control of your vehicle?"
In 2010, the first year of the state's anti-texting law, police agencies did little to enforce it. The 15 Nashville-area police agencies from Davidson, Sumner, Wilson, Rutherford and Williamson counties combined to issue 63 citations in 2010. Seven of the 15 agencies didn't write a single ticket.
Since then, the numbers have risen each year and are on track to do so again in 2013. There were 93 citations written in 2011 and 148 in 2012.
The Metro Nashville Police Department has issued 139 of the 389 citations. Murfreesboro Police are second with 105.
The Tennessee Highway Patrol has increased its statewide efforts each year. In 2010, the THP wrote 171 citations under the anti-texting law. That number rose to 380 in 2012 and already through the first six months of this year, 355 citations have been issued.
"We're doing everything we can to be as proactive and in front of this issue as we can be," Highway Patrol Sgt. Bill Miller said.
A frequent cause of distraction
Despite the increased efforts, it remains rare for an officer to write a texting-while-driving citation, even though officers say they see motorists distracted by their phones all the time.
Like other law enforcement agencies, the Lebanon Police Department analyzes its traffic accident data monthly. Lebanon Chief Scott Bowen said distracted driving has been the top cause of wrecks for as far back as he can remember. While officers take a broad view of distracted driving, which can be anything from eating food in the car to applying makeup or tending to children, the most frequent cause of distraction these days is the cellphone.
And yet the most citations the Lebanon Police Department has issued in a single year for texting while driving was 11 in 2012. So why are so few tickets being written if this is the case?
"It is tough to enforce. You have to see the individuals actually doing it," Bowen said, pointing out that drivers often make excuses.
If the driver won't own up to texting, officers can write a citation for the effect of the distracted driving, whether it's speeding, running a stop sign or failing to maintain the driving lane. Officers are unlikely to subpoena phone records for a traffic stop, though a records search is more commonplace when a serious crash occurs.
"You can't tell what (a driver) is doing with their phone," Sheffield said. "But if your driving draws my attention to you, and you're presenting yourself just as if you're using your phone to text, then I'm still going to stop you.
"I might not be able to write you for (Tennessee Code Annotated) 55-8-199, but if your driving is so egregious that it put others in danger, then I guarantee I can probably make the case for careless driving."
First in fatal wrecks
Enforcement of the state's texting-while-driving law is especially topical now because Tennessee has the highest percentage of crashes attributed to cellphone use, according to the National Safety Council.
In 2010, 7.4 percent of all fatal crashes in Tennessee were caused by cellphone use, which includes talking on the phone, texting and other uses. The number grew to 10.6 percent in 2011, compared with a national average of 1.2 percent over the two-year period.
The NSC report concluded that the number of deaths caused by cellphone use is under-reported and that data vary significantly from state to state.
Advocates, many of them family members of people maimed or killed by a distracted driver, say the state could make it a lot simpler for police. As things stand now, Tennessee's law bans texting while driving only if the car is moving, and expressly allows drivers to read, select or enter a phone number while behind the wheel.
In 2009, Doug Ralls' son Brian was killed by a woman who was reaching for her cellphone and crossed over the median on I-40 in Wilson County. The texting law wasn't in effect then, but what she did wouldn't have violated it, anyway.
That's one reason Doug Ralls and his wife have become perhaps the state's most vocal advocates of tighter distracted-driving laws. Ralls said the law should go much further and that it needs to be realistic and enforceable — if a lot less convenient for those who feel the urgent need to communicate.
"What we would like to see," Ralls said, "is a national law that bans cellphone use while driving."