Jefferson County, Kentucky judges have dismissed nearly 40 percent of the texting while driving charges brought under the state’s two-year-old ban while police and prosecutors say the ban is nearly impossible to enforce.
The Courier-Journal analyzed all 909 charges that have been brought across the state since police began citing drivers for two cellphone related driving laws passed in 2010. One barred those under the age of 18 to use a cellphone while operating a car and the other barred all drivers from sending or receiving text or email messages.
The newspaper analyzed data from Kentucky’s Administrative Office of the Courts that showed prosecutors got convictions 63 percent of the time.
About one-third of the cases avoided court altogether when drivers paid a fine.
Police officers say it’s difficult to determine whether a driver is illegally texting or using their phone for any number of other legal activities, such as to browse the Internet, update social media or get directions. Prosecutors say even then, the charge is hard to prove.
“It’s a very serious problem, and we would like to see a change in the law that would create stronger penalties and fewer defenses so we can be more aggressive in the prosecution of these cases,” Julie Hardesty, first assistant for Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell, said in response to questions from The Courier-Journal about the law’s effectiveness.
Prosecutors say it’s unlikely that they would get a subpoena for cellphone records for minor traffic violations.
“Without an admission from the driver, there is no good way to prove they were actually texting,” said Robert Neace, Boone County attorney and president of the Kentucky County Attorneys Association.
However, police statistics showed a slight drop in the number of crashes cause by cellphones or other distractions in Kentucky. There were 64,400 crashes blamed on distracted driving in Kentucky last year, a drop of about 2,000 crashes since the law’s penalties took effect, according to Kentucky State Police statistics.
The law is a “good starting point” but difficult to enforce, said Lt. Joe Seelye, commander of the Louisville Metro Police traffic unit. “I would like to see a law to where any time you use a phone to take your eyes off the roadway that you have to pull over in a parking lot or an emergency lane somewhere to do that,” he said.
State Rep. Tom Riner, a Louisville Democrat who sponsored the texting while driving bill, said he believes the law is effective even if some cases are thrown out.
“I’ve never introduced a perfect bill, and I’ve never seen one. I think if we make any improvement whatsoever it’s worth the effort,” Riner said.