CEDAR CITY – The number of Utah drivers pulled over in 2015 for manipulating their cell phones behind the wheel increased from the previous year while actual citations issued both locally and statewide remained relatively low – a factor officials with agencies patrolling roads and highways in Iron County attribute in part to their interest in educating the public over heavy-handed citing.
According to data, released this last week by the Utah Highway Patrol to The Associated Press, troopers pulled over 780 people under Utah Code Section 41-6a-1716 between May and October, a 12-percent increase from the same period in 2014 when only 692 stops were made.
Of those 780 drivers stopped only 256 people actually received a citation, the rest were let off with a warning. Reports show local UHP troopers handed out three citations in Iron County and three in Beaver County for 2015.
“What that means is somebody driving down the road and actually manipulating the buttons on their phone,” UHP spokesman Sgt. Todd Royce said. “It’s not just pushing one button and then bringing to their ear to talk.”
In Iron County, the number of citations issued by law enforcement agencies for texting while driving only totaled 22 for the year. The Sheriff’s Office issued the most, handing out just under 10 citations in 2015.
Cedar City Police Department gave out the second highest number of citations, coming in with seven, still a low number when compared to the 184 speeding tickets officers handed out in the same period.
Prior to May 2014, Utahns could still dial a phone number while operating a motor vehicle. Legislators, however, strengthened the law that year by making it illegal to manipulate the phone at all from behind the wheel except to talk, navigate and to use voice-activated technology.
Read more: Tighter restrictions on distracted driving go into effect at midnight – May 2014
Now almost two years later police said they spent more time in 2015 educating drivers about the dangers of texting and driving than writing citations.
Enoch Police Sgt. Mike Berg said his department embraced the idea of education this year handing out 11 warnings compared to only two citations.
“Officers have the discretion whether they write a warning or a ticket, or whether they use the opportunity to educate the person they just pulled over about the benefits of obeying the law,” Berg said. “When I pull someone over I have choices and I would much rather talk to drivers and use the law as a teaching instrument than I would to hand out a ticket.”
Royce said troopers would also rather educate the public than apply the law heavy-handedly. He attributed this in part to the lower number of citations written by UHP both locally and statewide.
“We don’t want to just hand out tickets, we also want to educate the public,” Royce said. “The intent of the law was to change behavior and educating the public about the dangers of distracted driving does that, as does enforcement.”
Aside from applying the law to educate the public, the lower numbers may also come from how difficult it is for police to prove when someone is manipulating their phone while driving, UHP Lt. Steve Esplin said.
Even under the stricter 2014 law, Esplin said, authorities have to see the driver manipulating the buttons on the phone.
“You have to watch them and actually see them push the buttons,” he said, “and that’s not always easy because people aren’t stupid and they keep their phones down where law enforcement can’t see them texting or manipulating their phones.”
Parowan Police Chief Ken Carpenter echoed Esplin’s sentiments saying just seeing “a driver’s head bobbing up and down” isn’t enough to write a citation. Parowan Police Department issued one citation for distracted driving in 2015.
“I can be behind someone and see their head bobbing up and down and see them weave in and out of traffic and still not be able to write a citation for texting and driving,” the police chief said. “So a lot of times it’s easier for me to pull them over and cite them for something else than it is to try and write a citation for texting and driving.”
Police can ask drivers if they can look at their phone when pulling them over, but without a search warrant, authorities have no legal standing to force them to do so.
“It’s not likely that I’m going to get a search warrant during a routine traffic stop,” Carpenter said. “Now if there’s an accident or someone gets hurt then that’s different. Then I’ll take the time to get the search warrant if there is reason to believe they were on their phone.”
Still, Esplin said the dangers of texting and driving should be enough of an incentive to stop people even without the threat of getting caught. In 2014, 22 fatal crashes were attributed to distracted driving in Utah, according to the Zero Fatalities campaign.
“It’s more dangerous than drunk driving,” Esplin said. “When people are driving drunk they’re at least trying to stay on the road and drive straight. When people are texting and driving they’re not even looking at the road ahead of them a lot of times.”
Those caught manipulating their phone from behind the wheel can face up to a $100 fine and if there’s an accident it can increase to $1,000.
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 46 states now ban texting while driving, as does the District of Columbia.
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