Enforcement of texting ban off to slow start

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / January 6, 2011

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Maybe more drivers are resisting the temptation to text or e-mail behind the wheel, even if it means locking their phone in their glove compartment. Or maybe they are just not getting caught.

Police across the state have handed out just 245 citations for texting since a ban under the state’s new distracted-driving law went into effect Sept. 30, fewer than three a day. And among drivers under the age of 18, who were banned from making calls in addition to texting, only 16 were ticketed.

The law, approved to great fanfare last summer after intense debate, reflected a growing consensus that texting while driving poses an unacceptable safety risk and that a ban was necessary to convince people to stop. In enacting the ban, Massachusetts joined a host of other states cracking down on texting behind the wheel.

But the totals, provided by the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, underline the difficulty police officers face in determining whether drivers are illegally sending or reading electronic messages or legally making a phone call.

“I think it’s abysmal, but it’s exactly what we predicted,’’ said Mark Montigny, a state senator from New Bedford. “These numbers show one simple thing. It’s very difficult for police to enforce this law as written.’’

Rachel Kaprielian, registrar of motor vehicles, said the number of citations do not tell the whole story.

“I think the important measure is, has it changed behavior?’’ Kaprielian said. “And some of it you measure by citations, and some of it is in crash reports to see if it was a contributing factor, and some of it is just the general awareness of the public that the law’s on the books.’’

The totals represented tickets handed out in the first 90 days of the new law. The texting violation carries a $100 fine. Police also issued 101 citations for using a mobile device so that it interfered with driving, a $35 ticket. Junior operators who use cellphones face fines and license suspensions.

Some safe-driving advocates expressed disappointment at the numbers and urged police to step up their oversight.

“To be a truly effective tool, to really change people’s behavior, it needs to be higher,’’ said Jeff Larson of the Safe Roads Alliance, a leading proponent of the ban.

Yet Larson and others acknowledged the challenge in spotting violators and called for prohibiting all handheld cellphone use on the roads.

“Dialing a phone can be just as dangerous as texting,’’ Montigny said.

Others saw the totals as encouraging given the difficulty in spotting texters, particularly those careful to conceal their communications.

“I’m surprised it’s that high,’’ said A. Wayne Sampson, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. “We thought a lot of the texting would be happening below window level and would be very hard to see.’’

Despite the challenges of enforcement, David Procopio, a spokesman for the State Police, said the ban is a valuable tool against distracted drivers.

“We hope, too, the new law has had some deterrent effect, and that there are fewer people texting behind the wheel,’’ he said.

Numerous studies have shown that cellphone use reduces response times and sharply increases crash risk. A widely cited study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, for instance, found that drivers who are texting are 23 times more likely to crash.

In 2009, distracted driving led to an estimated 5,500 fatalities and nearly 450,000 injuries, according to national statistics.

Supporters of the ban said focusing on citations overlooks the law’s deterrent value and the growing public awareness of the risks of distracted driving.

“I see it as a great start,’’ said Mary Maguire, director of public and legislative affairs for AAA Southern New England, which lobbied for the ban. “Even though 245 citations sounds lower than some might have hoped, it’s really hard to quantify the incredible public awareness that’s been generated.’’

Maguire said the low number of junior operators cited showed the difficulty police face in determining drivers’ age, while others said young drivers have gotten the message that cellphone use will not be tolerated.

For now, many drivers remained undeterred by the new law. Stephen Brewer, a state senator from Barre who worked on the safe driving bill, said people realize it is tough for police to spot them and continue to quickly tap out some texts in traffic or at a red light. Sampson, of the chiefs association, recently spotted a woman so engrossed in her cellphone she stayed put long after the stoplight turned.

Eric Moskowitz of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at