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Fifteen-year-old Cedric Reese texts a message while his brother, Sebastien watches traffic on a simulator designed to demonstrate the effects of distracted driving at Altru this week. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Experts say texting and driving is dangerous, but laws against it tough to enforce

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Kayne Borboa recently took the city of Grand Forks to court after receiving a $100 ticket for reading a message on his phone while driving, something he says he was not doing.

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Borboa was pulled over by a police officer in May after two undercover cops spotted him pushing buttons and touching the screen of his phone at a stop light.

He says he wasn’t doing anything illegal — rather, he was looking at his phone calendar.

“I know it’s just $100, but no doubt many, many people are being ticketed in Grand Forks doing something legal,” Borboa said.

Under North Dakota law, it is illegal to “compose, read, or send an electronic message” while operating a motor vehicle — no matter whether the driver is in motion or stopped at a traffic light. The law bans not only texting while driving but also emailing and instant messaging.

But North Dakota is not a hands-free state, meaning drivers are legally allowed to make a phone call, search their phone address book, play music on their phone and check their phone calendar.

The intent of the law, which went into effect in 2011, is to deter distracted driving, which can have deadly consequences on the road.

According to a U.S. Department of Transportation report, about 3,300 people were killed in crashes involving distracted drivers in 2011. Of those people, 385 died in crashes in which at least one of the drivers was using a cell phone.

Tough to enforce

Grand Forks County State’s Attorney Peter Welte called texting and driving an “epidemic.”

“Drive down South Washington and take a look at the different cars and see how many people are texting and driving. It’s constant,” he said.

But the law is difficult to enforce, said Lt. Dwight Love of the Grand Forks Police Department.

As of June 30, Grand Forks officers issued 55 citations for texting while driving violations in 2014.

Love said officers working on distracted driving enforcement will patrol in unmarked vehicles, looking for tell-tale signs of texting while driving: head down, one hand or no hands on the wheel, a phone in their palm. Once an officer has reasonable suspicion, he or she makes a traffic stop and talks with the driver.

“I have found — and the officers that have enforced that have found — that the public is pretty honest,” said Love, saying that drivers will often admit to texting.

Love said officers will also ask to see a driver’s phone to determine when the last text message was sent.

But what is near impossible to prove is whether or not a driver was reading a message, as in Borboa’s case.

One of the officers who pulled Borboa over testified in municipal court that Borboa admitted to reading his emails, but Borboa said he never admitted to reading messages on his phone.

“That would be a situation where it would go in front of the magistrate, and they would decide who to believe,” said Welte, who said the problem of distracted driving is difficult to address through the law because of “proof issues.”

Borboa, who represented himself in court, ended up losing the case.

“I’m annoyed because it needs to be we become hands-free... or it just becomes ‘There’s a phone in your hand, ticket,’” he said.

Borboa might appeal the judge’s decision, he said.

Solutions

The reason for the emphasis on texting and driving is that it is one of the most risky types of driver distraction.

“Once we get to texting it involves all three types of distraction,” said Bill Vasicek, community safety coordinator at Altru Health System, referring to the physical, mental and visual distractions of texting.

In other words, drivers take their hands off the wheel and their minds and eyes off the road.

North Dakota is among 39 states that have banned texting while driving. Ten of those states prohibit drivers from using handheld cell phones at all.

But Vasicek said making a phone call while driving is not much safer than texting and driving.

“They found only 2 percent of drivers can safely drive and talk,” he said, referencing a study conducted by David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah who has studied distracted driving for the last decade.

Questions have also been raised as to the effectiveness of a texting and driving law. According to a World Health Organization report, there is a lack of research examining the effectiveness of legislation in curtailing cell phone use on the road. The report also suggested that public awareness campaigns such as the ones Vasicek administers are important in tackling distracted driving.

As for Borboa, he suggested cell phone providers and software developers should find a way of disabling texting when users are moving above a certain speed.

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