Drivers in Johnson County are about 200 times more likely to get a speeding ticket than a ticket for text messaging while driving.
In two years, the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, Greenwood police and Franklin police have written fewer than 40 texting tickets or warnings in total. State police officers have written three to motorists driving through the county.
The reason: When you speed, a police officer’s radar proves it. But if you are asked if you were texting, whether you are ticketed depends on the answer you give.
Franklin police officer Joe Dillon has pulled over about 15 drivers for what looks to him like texting, but he has written only a handful of tickets because state law doesn’t forbid dialing a phone number, looking at digital maps or switching songs on a smartphone music playlist.
Dillon sits in his squad car on seat-belt patrol from two to 12 hours monthly on streets with speed limits of 30 mph or slower. From his car, he scrutinizes drivers.
He sees motorists sitting through green lights while staring at their phones. If he pulls them over, though, and they say they weren’t texting, Dillon can’t do much beyond telling them to drive more carefully.
Texting takes motorists’ eyes off the road for nearly five out of every six seconds that they’re text messaging, according to state officials.
“Distracted driving mimics quite closely impaired driving,” Dillon said.
A motorist distracted by eating a taco or by text messaging can be just as dangerous as a drunken driver for the amount of time they’re distracted, he said.
Indiana legislators made it illegal for motorists to use their cellphones to text message while driving as of July 1, 2011. The lawmakers made a rule that’s hard for police officers to enforce, local officials said. Local police officers since then have written fewer than 20 tickets in the county per year.
Fines for texting and driving cannot exceed $35.50, unless associated with another traffic violation. Offenders also must pay court costs of $118.50. So, the maximum charge would be $154.
State law doesn’t allow a police officer to check a driver’s phone during a traffic stop to verify if they were texting, so motorists can claim whatever they want when police stop them, local officials said.
Once, Dillon stopped a driver who was new to town and said she was looking on her phone map for directions to a restaurant.
He told her that searching the Internet for directions was similar in danger to texting. She didn’t get a ticket, Dillon said.
Texting is an offense that is hard to ticket unless an officer sees a driver looking at a phone and the driver admits to sending a text when confronted about it, Edinburgh Police Chief David Lutz said.
“If I write a speeding ticket, my radar is going to say you were driving 55 in a 30. Texting is one of those things that unfortunately hinges on a person’s honesty,” Dillon said.
Indiana State Police spokesman Richard Myers offered another explanation for the few texting tickets in Johnson County and the state.
Drivers who are text messaging are more often confronted with the traffic violation the texting caused, such as driving left of center, rather than the actual texting, he said.
One driver did confess to texting to Dillon but later said in court she wasn’t texting.
The judge threw out the case because it was based on his word against the driver’s, Dillon said.
Police departments can get cellphone records only by court order and wouldn’t have the time to do so during a typical traffic stop, Whiteland Town Marshal Rick Shipp said.
Officers would get cellphone records if texting possibly caused a serious car accident, but the department hasn’t had to do so, he said.
Whiteland officers haven’t written any texting tickets or warnings since the law passed.
“For the patrol officer, it’s so hard to determine if they’re texting or if they’re just on their phone,” Shipp said. “It’s a very, very bad law. There’s no teeth to the law.”
Officers watch for cars driving left of center or off the road, following another vehicle too closely or weaving around within their lane.
“When you see a law that is very important to protect lives and very few tickets have been written, that means something,” Sheriff Doug Cox said.
“That usually tells you that there’s something in the statute that makes it hard to enforce.”