Texting while driving kills; there is no disputing the fact that when a driver decides to pull out a cell phone or another electronic device, the safety of everyone on the road is compromised. In fact, 38 states have bans on texting and driving. But as law enforcement officials would be quick to point out, catching a distracted driver in the act is something a little harder to do.
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The federal government has begun testing ways to catch texting drivers through a new grant program. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has given police departments in two states money to help them devise methods for enforcing distracted driving laws. The grant will go to police departments in Massachusetts and Connecticut. The NHTSA says that $550,000 allotment will put into practice field tests to examine a variety of ways that police can catch texters in the act. So far the police departments have tried advertising and education campaigns, and physically placing “spotters” on overpasses in order to catch the texters. The findings could set a new precedence for police departments across the country. What they will likely find is how best to catch distracted drivers in the act.
Thirty-eight states may have texting and driving bans in place, but only ten states have laws on the books that ban all cell phone use behind the wheel. In areas where some hand held cell phone use is allowed, law enforcement agencies face the challenge of spotting drivers who are actually using their cell phones to text behind the wheel. Similar programs have already netted interesting results. North Dakota police officers cracked down on drivers during a two-day campaign that put “eyes in the sky”, or at least up high, in higher sitting vehicles like SUVs to peer down into passing vehicles. The campaign led to 31 tickets. Texting and driving is illegal in North Dakota, as is browsing the internet behind the wheel. In this exercise the onlookers spied to see what apps the drivers were using.
Should federal grants go to support programs that amount to spying on drivers? While the issue of distracted driving is very serious indeed, there are those who question at what point the line is crossed into a violation of privacy. Such approaches to enforcing texting and driving bans have been slow to gain popularity even among lawmakers. The question remains where concerns over public safety trumps the right to privacy.
Where does this leave states like Kansas and Missouri? Missouri was the 23rd state in the nation to pass texting and driving laws. When state laws vary and do not include an outright ban on texting and driving, how would these potential law enforcement techniques actually look in practice?