Some question enforcement of Kansas texting-while-driving law

Steve Griffin was running late as he drove up I-135 on the morning of Sept. 1

“It was right around 8:35 or 8:40, and I had to be at work at 8:45,” he said. “If I was going to be more than 10 minutes late, I was going to have to call my manager.”

He reached for the cellphone mounted on his dashboard to check the time. The next thing he knew, he was parked at the side of the highway talking to a Wichita police officer.

“He asked me if I knew why he had pulled me over, and I said, ‘I honestly don’t know,’ ” Griffin said. “He told me I was getting a ticket for texting and driving.”

Wichita Municipal Court records show that Griffin was one of 34 drivers ticketed last year by Wichita police under the state’s new texting-while-driving law. The records show that the typical offender was not a teenager headed to or from school, but an adult driving between 1 and 8 p.m. And at least some of the drivers, including Griffin, were left wondering if the law should more explicitly spell out how it should be enforced.

“I showed the officer the phone and showed him there was no text in it,” he said. “I handed him my phone. He still gave me a ticket.”

The state texting ban makes it illegal to use a wireless communication device “to manually type, send or read a written communication, including, but not limited to, a text message, instant message or electronic mail” while driving. In Wichita Municipal Court, the standard fine is $125.

When he went to court, Griffin said, he took phone records that showed that no text messages had been sent to or from his phone on his drive to work that morning.

“I never text while driving,” he said. “I’m a huge advocate of not texting and driving. I think it’s a great law, but I think there have to be some boundaries.”

Court records show that the average age of the 34 ticketed drivers was 30. Four were in their 40s, and two were in their 50s. The group included 15 women and 19 men. Of the 34 cases, seven were dismissed, one went to diversion, 20 resulted in convictions, and six were pending at the end of the year.

Five of the 34 tickets accompanied more serious DUI charges, and two were issued to drivers cited for driving with suspended licenses.

Among those receiving texting tickets last year was Aron White, who said he was on his lunch break at 1:35 p.m. on May 6 when he picked up his BlackBerry while stopped at a light at 21st and Maize. He admits he was on his Facebook page.

“I was on my cellphone while driving – reading messages and typing back,” he said. “I had no idea it was illegal.”

White questions the law to an extent. He said he figures texting is probably no more dangerous than flipping through songs on an iPod or punching an address into a GPS device.

“It’s dangerous, but only if you’re an idiot about it,” he said.

Kelsey Roberson said she’s a strong proponent of the law that bans texting while driving.

“I think it’s very dangerous,” she said. “All distracted driving can be really dangerous.”

But Roberson said she has reservations about the way the law is being enforced. She was stopped at Kellogg and Webb Road about 8:20 a.m. on July 6, she said, for not wearing a seat belt. After the officer saw she had her seat belt on, she said, he cited her for texting while driving.

“I wasn’t even using my phone that morning, so I did contest it ,” she said.

When she got to court, Roberson said, she heard the officer testify that he saw her holding her cellphone and moving her thumbs.

Roberson denied it. She said she took her phone log to court to show the judge that she wasn’t texting when she got the ticket. The judge suggested she might have been reading e-mail sent earlier in the day.

“I was surprised they found me guilty,” she said. “He said the law says it doesn’t matter if you’re typing electronic mail or reading electronic mail, it’s still texting and driving.”

Wichita police Capt. Max Tenbrook said he couldn’t address the specifics of the texting-while-driving tickets. But in general, he said, he’s leery of any innocence claim that comes from a person who’s gone in front of a judge and been found guilty.

“Most people who go to court say, ‘I didn’t do it,’ ” he said.

Tenbrook said he would have expected that most texting-while-driving tickets would be issued to drivers who were involved in accidents and later admitted they were distracted by texting.

“I’m surprised that there have been that many,” he said of cases involving drivers who were not in accidents.

Griffin, the driver ticketed on I-135, said the officer testified that he saw Griffin use his slide-out keyboard to send a text message.

“My phone doesn’t even have a keyboard,” Griffin said. “I have an all touch-screen phone.

“I thought about going as far as appealing, but I didn’t want the hassle,” he said. “I actually talked to a lawyer, and I was told that I would be better off to pay the ticket than to try to fight it in court. He told me that in the long run, even if my insurance goes up, it won’t go up high enough to justify hiring a lawyer.”

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