While a new law enacted late last year seeks to discourage distracted driving, the sheer volume of citations issued across four of the state’s larger police forces indicates a substantial number of motorists has failed to heed that warning.
Further, despite the new law penalizing drivers specifically for texting, some evidence exists that such risky behavior actually increases in the face of similar laws elsewhere.
Citations for texting while driving
NonDoc recently issued four separate open records requests to state and local law enforcement agencies. The requests sought data regarding the number of citations issued for texting while driving since the law took effect Nov. 1. Agencies from which data were requested include the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and the OKC, Tulsa and Norman police departments.
For the period spanning Nov. 1, 2015, to March 21, 2016, agencies cited the following figures for citations issued under the new texting while driving law:
- State of Oklahoma: 272
- City of OKC: 53
- Tulsa: 34
- Norman: 8
So, over a period of 141 days, the four agencies examined issued a total of 367 citations, which is an average of 2.6 citations per day for texting while driving/distracted driving.
An estimated 26,000 people died in motor-vehicle crashes during the first nine months of 2015, according to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report released in early February. This represents a 9.3 percent increase in deaths overall per vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. and a 2 percent increase in Region 6, which includes Oklahoma.
Intuitively, we can estimate that some portion of those 26,000 fatalities nationwide can be attributed to distracted driving. According to Distraction.gov, a policy outlet of the NHTSA and U.S. Department of Transportation, distracted driving includes:
- Using a cell phone or smartphone
- Eating and drinking
- Talking to passengers
- Reading, including maps
- Using a navigation system
- Watching a video
- Adjusting a radio, CD player, or MP3 player
Text messaging tops the list for a reason because it requires “visual, manual and cognitive attention from the driver.” As such, the agency labels texting while driving “the most alarming distraction.”
If we can assume that distracted driving as a whole accounts for some portion of overall U.S. driving fatalities, then texting while driving must account for some portion of that percentage. In fact, in one high-profile case from 2015, one Oklahoma state trooper lost his life while another was injured, the driver responsible for the fatality lost his freedom and smart-phone privileges, and lawmakers created new legislation. All because of distracted driving.
The Trooper Nicholas Dees and Trooper Keith Burch Act of 2015
On a rainy night in January 2015, Steven Clark was traveling on I-40 in Seminole County when the car he was driving struck two state troopers, Nick Dees and Keith Burch, who were working a crash scene.
Go ahead: Text while you drive. You’ll pay for it. by Lisha Dunlap
Dees was killed, and Burch was injured. Clark was charged with first-degree manslaughter after he admitted he was updating social media while driving, which caused the incident. Clark pleaded guilty Aug. 21, 2015, and received a sentence of five years in prison and seven years suspended on Dec. 12. As part of his probation, Clark was to receive a cell phone capable of only dialing 911.
The incident led lawmakers to propose HB 1965, also known as the Trooper Nicholas Dees and Trooper Keith Burch Act of 2015, which Gov. Mary Fallin signed into law May 4, 2015. The law codifies texting while driving as a subset of distracted driving and makes the act a primary offense, thereby giving officers authority to pull over offenders and issue tickets of up to $100 for the offense. Oklahoma was the 46th state to adopt such a law.
Runnin’ and gunnin’
Given the impetus for enacting the new law, it may come as no surprise that OHP started issuing citations right off the bat.
For example, local law enforcement working in conjunction with OHP conscripted a school bus to gain a higher vantage point from which to view the activities of drivers in and around Calera, Okla.
According to KXII News 12 out of Sherman, Texas, “In one 20-minute window, they made eight traffic stops, including one semi driver, who was texting behind the wheel.”
That was Nov. 5, and by Dec. 1, Preston Jones reported OHP had issued 91 tickets related to the new law.
‘Actually changing behavior’
Not every law enforcement agency tapped for this story bolted out of headquarters keen to ticket distracted drivers. The Norman Police Department built in a grace period for educating drivers about the new law.
“We completely understand that we did not have to have to allow time to pass before enforcing the new law,” Norman PD Public Safety Information Officer Sarah Jensen said via email. “However, we believe that proper education plays a key role in actually changing behavior. We wanted the opportunity to interact and create better understanding with our citizens before transitioning to enforcement efforts.
“The Norman Police Department did an education period from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31, 2015, to raise awareness and provide warnings for the new law. So we did not officially start writing citations until Jan. 1, 2016.”
Easier said than done
While the inspiration for the relatively new law making texting while driving in Oklahoma a primary offense seeks to deter risky behavior while also punishing those who get caught in the act, some evidence exists that such laws actually increase the dangers associated with distracted driving.
As Shane Smith with Red Dirt Report pointed out the day after Oklahoma’s new law went into effect, at least one study indicates that risky behavior increases because now, instead of drivers adhering to the new law, they seek to subvert it by holding their phones lower to mask their distracted driving.
So, as Jensen with Norman PD notes above, changing behavior may actually be more vital to reducing the potentially tragic effects of distracted driving than any new laws, however justified.
(Correction: This article was updated to correct a reference to Steven Clark.)