New Funding Allows Crackdown on Texting While Driving in North Dakota

By James MacPherson | May 5, 2014

Motorists routinely may see fellow drivers texting and driving, but police rarely do, making enforcement of North Dakota’s distracted driving law difficult to enforce, authorities say.

“When a squad car is in the area, a driver usually will hide the phone,” Devils Lake Police Chief Keith Schroeder said. “It’s a very difficult violation to observe.”

Law enforcement agencies in North Dakota now have additional funding to combat distracted driving; it’s money that’s being used in part to put plainclothes officers in unmarked cruisers on the road to catch motorists who text and drive.

Police in five cities – Bismarck, Fargo, Grand Forks, Minot, and Devils Lake – last month issued a record 114 tickets for texting while driving as part of a statewide crackdown that was the first of its kind in North Dakota, said Karin Mongeon, the state Transportation Department’s manager of traffic safety.

The agency said North Dakota received $424,000 from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as part of an $8.5 million national campaign to help enforce distracted driving laws.

Terri Wilhelm, a spokeswoman for the state Transportation Department, said about $40,000 of the grant was spent last month in the crackdown. Officials said about half of the total grant money will be used to buy advertising to remind the public about the deadly consequences of texting and driving and the $100 fine for getting caught.

The North Dakota Legislature approved the texting while driving ban in 2011. From 2011 through March of this year, only 18 citations had been issued statewide, Wilhelm said.

The ban in North Dakota applies for accessing or sending electronic data while operating a motor vehicle _ even while at a stoplight.

According to federal data, 3,328 people were killed and about 421,000 people were injured nationally in distracted driving crashes in 2012.

North Dakota is one of 43 states that ban text messaging for drivers of all ages.

Schroeder, the Devils Lake police chief, said his 16-member force has issued only a handful of citations since the law was enacted. Last month, officers issued 15 tickets, he said.

Once the driver is pulled over for texting, police also can check for other violations, he said.

State officials said the traffic stops for texting drivers last month also netted numerous other citations and arrests, including for warrants, drunken driving and possession of drugs.

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