Few Fined for Texting Behind the Wheel

Tennessee lawmakers outlawed texting while driving more than two years ago. At the time, predictions were that 3,650 people a year would end up getting pinched thumbing their noses at the law while they thumbed away at their hand-held communication devices.

This year, Tennessee Highway Patrol has issued only 174 citations.

Although state officials say they don’t know how many local police citations have been written up, lawmakers who drove the bill through the Legislature say that despite the lack of tickets issued, they still believe the new law has been a success, and not a solution in search of a problem.

“I think law enforcement is beginning to figure out how to enforce it now, and it is difficult, but I think you’re going to see more enforcement as we move on,” said Chairman Jim Tracy who carried the bill in the Senate and runs the chamber’s Transportation Committee.

In 2009, lawmakers approved the texting and driving ban under the assumption it would also collected some $41,600 in fines through the up to $50 per ticket fee.

But in 2010, the state only collected $2,010 in state and county-issued citations, drastically below the state’s original estimates. THP issued 171 citations that year.

Officials who hand off such projections to the Legislature admitted earlier this year they overestimated the number of citations that would be issued for texting and driving in Tennessee.

The new law has yet to cover the price of implementation, which cost taxpayers $10,500 in programming changes to departmental systems required to enforce and track violations of the ban.

“Despite the challenges, the Tennessee Highway Patrol is and continues to strictly enforce this law,” wrote Department of Safety Spokeswoman Dalya Qualls in an email. “It is our hope that the prohibition of texting while driving in Tennessee, along with enforcement and education, will help alter the behavior of drivers around the state.”

The law bans sending a written message on a cell phone or other electronic communications device while the vehicle is in motion, punishable with a Class C misdemeanor which is limited to an up to $50 fine, although the state projected the average fine would be $15. Although the vehicle is in motion, the violation is ranked as non-moving and is not marked on a driver’s record.

The number of vehicle crashes involving cell phone use is on the rise. In 2007, the state counted 577 phone-related crashes, which has climbed to 918 last year, however the department statistics are unclear as to how many of those crashes included texting verses talking.

Rep. Jon Lundberg, who sponsored the ban in the House, said he’s torn between whether the low numbers are a result of a lack of enforcement or greater public awareness that texting while driving is prohibited.

“In most of our nature, we want to do things that are legal,” the Bristol Republican told TNReport. “I think most folks know that texting while driving is illegal in Tennessee.”

Thirty-five states currently ban texting while driving. Another nine have banned talking on handheld phones behind the wheel.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this month recommended Congress and state legislatures consider a ban on using cell phones, including hands-free devices, while driving.

But apparently there’s little immediate desire to jump on the next bandwagon and try to legislate cell phones out of Tennessee drivers’ hands.

“Talking on the phone and texting are different,” said Tracy, R-Shelbyville. “You’re doing a running conversation while you’re texting and you’re not concentrating on driving, where you can talk on the phone and keep your eyes up and look at the road. So I don’t see a movement to ban telephones yet.”