Nebraska Police Say Hands Tied with Texting Ban

December 13, 2011

Law enforcement officials in Nebraska continue to grapple with how to enforce a 2010 state law that bans texting while driving.

Columbus police have issued one ticket and three warnings since the ban went into effect almost 18 months ago, the Telegram reported. The Platte County sheriff’s office has issued a few warnings.

Law enforcement officials say the law is difficult to enforce because texting while driving is a secondary offense. That means drivers have to be pulled over for primary offenses, such as speeding, before being ticketed for texting.

Columbus Police Capt. Todd Thalken said it’s also a difficult violation to prove. Talking on a cellphone while driving is allowed, so showing that someone was using the device to text requires either an admission of guilt or a subpoena for phone records. A subpoena isn’t typically used unless the suspected violation is part of a major crash investigation.

“Our hands are tied on this thing because catching somebody violating the law while they’re texting is difficult, especially in the city,” Thalken said.

Platte County Sheriff Jon Zavadil said he believes some crashes in his jurisdiction have been caused by a driver districted by texting “but to prove that is another thing.”

The Nebraska Office of Public Safety reported 1,119 crashes involving “mobile phone distractions” — which encompasses more than texting — between 2002 and 2010. Six of those crashes were fatal and 484 involved injuries.

Through August of this year, 86 crashes in Nebraska have been attributed to cellphones.

“It is really a very serious problem that everyone needs to pay attention to,” said Fred Zwonechek, Nebraska Office of Highway Safety administrator.

Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia have a texting ban for all drivers, with all but three of those states classifying the offense as primary, according to the Governors’ Highway Safety Association. Seven other states ban texting for new drivers.

Legislation to create the Nebraska ban originally called for texting to be a primary offense, but it was downgraded to secondary as part of a compromise.

Sen. John Harms, of Scottsbluff, said he would like to upgrade the offense back to a primary one and would introduce legislation to do so.

“I think in order to make it truly effective that’s what’s going to have to happen,” he said.

The state ban on texting also prohibits surfing the Web, emailing and instant messaging while driving. Violations of the law carry a fine of at least $200 and the loss of three points on a driver’s license.

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