BOSTON—Massachusetts drivers are still sending and reading text messages, despite a statewide ban on texting behind the wheel.
Between the Sept. 30 start of the ban and the end of May, 733 citations for sending texts -- about 3 per day -- have been issued by police.
State officials and safety groups say it's too soon to know if the threat of tickets is stopping drivers from texting. The number of citations so far is encouraging to some, while disappointing to others.
"Unfortunately, it's not surprising," said Jeff Larson, president of Safe Drivers Alliance, a safe driving advocacy group that supports laws aimed at curbing distracted driving. "It's a difficult law to enforce and there needs to be strengthening of the law."
While the state law bans texting, it still allows drivers to talk on their phones. Larson said this makes it tough for law enforcement to know when someone is illegally texting or legally dialing a phone number. A solution, he said, is another law requiring drivers to use hands-free devices when talking on their phones. He said that would decrease distractions and eliminate any excuse to hold a phone.
The new law bans drivers from reading or sending text messages and emails, and scanning the Internet. If caught, even at a stoplight, motorists face fines ranging from $100 for a first offense and up to $500 for repeat offenses. Massachusetts was the 30th state in the nation to introduce a texting ban.
Under the new law, another 344 drivers have been ticketed for improperly using their mobile phones -- such as by taking both hands off the wheel to grab a phone or by driving erratically.
Police also ticketed 41 drivers under the age of 18 for using their phones. Teen drivers are not allowed use their phones for texting or talking. A ticket comes with a 60-day license suspension.
"I'm encouraged by the number of citations being issued, because that would indicate officers are being vigilant in their observations," said Chief Wayne Sampson, director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association.
A recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that enforcement, not just the threat of enforcement, was a key to cutting back the number of texting drivers. Distracted driving violations fell dramatically in Hartford, Conn., and Syracuse, N.Y., after police stepped up visible enforcement of distracted driving laws.
Hartford saw a 57 percent drop in drivers talking on cell phones and a nearly 75 percent drop in texting. In Syracuse, distracted driving dropped by 33 percent.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 5,474 people were killed nationwide in crashes that were reported to have involved distracted driving in 2009, the most recent year data is available. Of those fatal crashes, 995 (18 percent) involved a cell phone as a distraction.
Under the new texting law, Massachusetts police have handed out seven citations for injuries from negligent driving caused by mobile phone use. And texting may have a played a role when 17-year-old Aaron Deveau was using a cell phone Feb. 20 and his car crossed the center line and struck another vehicle in Haverhill. The driver of the other car, Donald Bowley of Danville, N.H., died.
Deveau pleaded not guilty in May to charges including negligent operation of a motor vehicle causing injury due to mobile phone use, and being a person under the age of 18 using a mobile phone while driving.
Police departments across Massachusetts say they've been able to successfully integrate enforcing the new law into their daily duties.
Sgt. John Delaney, a spokesman for the Springfield Police Department, said teen drivers are especially deterred by stiff penalties from using their phones.
Those penalties, many say, must be paired with education. That education, and safe driving in general, is critical to preventing accidents, said John Paul, a spokesman for American Automobile Association Southern New England, a top proponent of the state's texting ban.
"I think it's up to all of us to continue to remind people our primary function behind the wheel is just to drive," he said.