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Police: New law tough to enforce; few tickets issued

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The officer knew something was distracting the other driver when she sped right past his police car.

Greenwood Police assistant chief Matt Fillenwarth did not see the woman texting but was confident she had to be distracted by something to drive by a police car that quickly. When he walked up to the vehicle, he saw a small post-it note stuck on the dashboard: a reminder not to send text messages while behind the wheel.

But since he hadn’t seen her texting, Fillenwarth had no grounds to give her a ticket and instead wrote her a warning for speeding.

Among some of the county’s largest police departments, officers have written only about 50 tickets for violating a state law enacted in 2012 that bans people from sending text messages while driving.

But that low number of tickets doesn’t necessarily mean people are following the law.

Instead, police say it’s simply too difficult to enforce.

Suspecting and proving someone is texting behind the wheel are different. For example, officers struggle to tell if a person is using their phone to send a text message or looking at a map or email, which would both be legal to do.

“It’s nearly impossible for us to enforce,” Franklin police Lt. Kerry Atwood said. “You can’t tell if they’re sending a text message or punching in a phone number.”

Indiana State Police have issued only eight tickets in Johnson County to people texting and driving. But they’ve handed out 555 warnings statewide.

Greenwood police have issued 12 tickets for people sending text messages while driving over the past 2½ years, which equals about one ticket every two months. By comparison, the department wrote 50 speeding tickets on average every month last year.

Police officers see people with phones in front of their faces while they drive and suspect they’re texting. That person might be looking at an online map, checking their email or visiting a social networking site, all of which are still legal.

Police have to hope to pull over an honest person when giving a ticket for texting and driving, Fillenwarth said.

“Unless they admit doing it, it’s pretty hard to enforce,” Fillenwarth said.

The idea to ban texting while driving makes sense, but the rule is not realistic to enforce, Fillenwarth and Sheriff Doug Cox said.

But many people have likely not texted while driving because of the law, Fillenwarth said.

“The best part of the law is that people know it’s a law and they know they’re breaking the law,” Fillenwarth said. “For the most part people don’t go out and break the laws.”

Police will issue a ticket if they see a driver texting but likely have to pull up next to their car at a stoplight or while driving down a multilane road to know for certain that the driver’s fingers are typing a text message and not looking up a phone number, Fillenwarth said.

The sheriff’s office has issued 15 tickets and 24 warnings to people who were texting and driving, but the bigger problem on the road isn’t always people texting, Cox said.

Cox remembers seeing one person driving on U.S. 31 with a book propped on his wheel and seeing another man shaving while driving on Interstate 65. He would rather see a law that would cover multiple distractions to drivers.

“I’m a big fan of banning things other than texting,” Cox said. “As heavy as a vehicle is, we should be paying attention all of the time.”

The Prince’s Lakes Police Department, in the southern portion of the county, has yet to issue a ticket to a person for texting and driving, town marshal Greg Southers said.

A majority of the roads in Prince’s Lakes are one lane in each direction, so officers can’t pull up beside another car and notice a driver texting, Southers said.

“Down here, I have seen a lot of people pull to the side of the road to use their phone,” Southers said. “But I don’t know if it’s because of our terrain down here. We have a lot of hills and curves. The roads turn here so quickly that if you spend a second looking down in your lap while driving, you could be in big trouble.”

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