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Published September 25 2011

Texting while driving proves tough to enforce

FARGO – Talk about making a tough call: Is the driver texting? Dialing a phone number? Thumbing through his address book? Playing “Angry Birds”?

Authorities say it’s a challenge enforcing North Dakota’s new ban on texting while driving, and the numbers bear it out.

In the law’s first 52 days – it took effect Aug. 1 – Highway Patrol troopers had issued just two tickets and five warnings statewide, said Lt. Jody Skogen, patrol spokesman.

Cass County prosecutors have yet to see a citation come across their desks, State’s Attorney Birch Burdick said.

And the prospect of more paperwork has Fargo police reluctant to write tickets for texting while driving – although officials say that will soon change.

In Moorhead, where Minnesota’s ban has been in effect since Aug. 1, 2008, Lt. Tory Jacobson said police have issued “very few” tickets for texting while driving. A total of 49 citations had come through Clay County District Court as of late last week.

Moria Matson of Fargo was among the first drivers ticketed in Clay County, although she said she was actually changing songs on her MP3 player when a state trooper stopped her on Highway 9 in May 2009.

More than two years and $135 later, the 23-year-old said she has cut back on texting while driving.

“I don’t do it as much as I used to, just because I know it’s a huge, big thing now,” she said. “And I don’t feel like paying another $135.”

The $135 penalty in Minnesota consists of a $50 base fine, $75 surcharge and $10 law library fee. Under North Dakota law, drivers caught using a wireless communications device to compose, read or send a message can be fined $100.

Skogen said enforcement may continue to be sporadic in North Dakota as troopers struggle to catch drivers in the act, but educating drivers about the dangers of texting continues to be an important priority.

“The law bolsters our stance against the life-threatening act and increases the odds that North Dakota motorists will arrive at their destinations safely,” he said in an email.

The Minnesota State Patrol has been ramping up enforcement since the state’s ban took effect.

After issuing just 18 tickets in the last five months of 2008, troopers issued 137 tickets in 2009, 355 tickets in 2010 and 332 tickets through Aug. 31 of this year, according to Lt. Eric Roeske, patrol spokesman. Troopers also have issued 2,151 warnings.

Sgt. Jesse Grabow, the patrol’s public information and safety officer serving the Detroit Lakes and Thief River Falls districts, said he personally has issued “maybe a dozen” tickets and probably twice as many warnings.

“There’s no doubt about it; it’s a difficult law to enforce, just because of the nature of (trying to) prove whether they’re texting on their phone or just simply browsing through their address book to call somebody,” he said.

Despite the enforcement challenges, authorities say the bans help to educate drivers and have altered behavior for the better.

“Just speaking to people, I believe a lot more people have made a conscious effort not to even use their cellphones while driving,” Grabow said.

“I really think it’s affected people’s behavior, because I have been looking for it, and I haven’t seen it much,” Fargo patrol Sgt. Bill Ahlfeldt said.

Fargo has yet to adopt a city ordinance equivalent to the new state law, meaning officers who catch drivers texting must complete a report and forward it to Burdick’s office, which in turn must consider whether to charge the driver and, if necessary, mail the driver a summons.

“It’s a real cumbersome process for us to have to use district court,” Fargo Administrative Lt. Steve Lynk said.

Lynk and Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes have been working with the city attorney’s office to craft a texting while driving ordinance. It’s expected to be presented Oct. 3 to the City Commission, which will discuss whether to make changes before adopting it.

“I can tell you it’s pretty much going to match the state law,” Assistant City Attorney Jason Loos said of the proposed ordinance.

Ahlfeldt said officers typically watch a driver for a while to make sure they’re texting and not using their phone for other purposes.

“I don’t think you’re going to see officers out there seeing somebody typing on their keypad and immediately pulling somebody over,” he said.

Some drivers may believe they’re complying with the law by texting only when stopped at intersections, but that also is illegal, Ahlfeldt said.

“You still need to be alert when you’re in control of that vehicle,” he said.

Distracted driving blamed on electronic devices is becoming a more common factor in vehicle crashes, Grabow said.

Last month, 19-year-old Kayla Carry of Browerville, Minn., pleaded guilty to criminal vehicular homicide in connection with a fatal Otter Tail County crash that killed 77-year-old Lucille Vogt of Parkers Prairie, Minn., on Sept. 16, 2010. The complaint said 15 text messages were sent or received from Carry’s phone in the 40 minutes before the crash, The Associated Press reported.

Since Minnesota’s ban passed, Grabow said he’s become less tolerant when he observes cars swerving, crossing the centerline and making lane changes without signaling. If he suspects texting while driving but can’t prove it, he will still cite drivers for the traffic offenses – some of which can upset other drivers and trigger road rage incidents, he said.

“I really believe it is the new epidemic plaguing our highways,” he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528