Texting will start costing Kansas drivers

Texting a friend on a cell phone while operating a 2,000-pound vehicle never was a good idea.

Starting today , it will become an expensive idea as well as a dangerous one.

After a six-month warning period, local and state law enforcement officers will begin handing out tickets to anyone they catch texting while driving.

The minimum fine is $60, plus court costs.

The law also bans instant messaging and e-mailing while driving.

For all drivers with a learner's permit or intermediate license, the law also bans all cell phone use —hand-held or hands-free.

Drivers with those permits typically are in the under-20 age group, which has the highest proportion of distraction-related fatal crashes nationally, according to the Kansas Department of Transportation. Drivers with such permits who are convicted of the new violation may be subject to delays to full licensure as well as fines and courts costs.

Officers may issue texting tickets simply by observing a violation. They don't need to have stopped a driver for another reason.

The law applies even if a vehicle is stopped at a red light or stop sign.

The law includes exceptions for reading emergency, traffic and weather-related alerts, and for reporting a crime.

Lt. Robert Baker, of the Kansas Highway Patrol, said officers can easily tell the difference between texting and making a phone call. He said that someone making a phone call looks at the phone for only a few seconds, while texting requires looking at the phone for much longer.

But Sedgwick County sheriff's Capt. George Mason, of the patrol division, said it's not quite that easy.

"We could make an assumption that's what is happening, but some people just have a bad habit of looking at the phone while they're talking," he said.

Mason said he would like to see the law changed to include a ban of any use of a hand-held device while driving.

His deputies have a hard time telling whether drivers are using cell phones to make calls or send text messages, making it difficult to prove a case in court.

"There's so many different things the deputy has to look at in order to prove that's what a person was doing, texting while driving," Mason said.

Whether a driver is texting or making a call, Wichita police officers can pull the driver over for careless driving if they believe the driver was distracted, said Lt. Doug Nolte, spokesman for the Wichita Police Department.

If texting was the cause, they will give a citation, he said.

Nolte said Wichita police will look at accidents caused by cell phone use and launch education efforts. They will conduct awareness campaigns on television and hand out fliers at problem locations.

"It doesn't do us any good to enforce a new law just because we can," Nolte said. "We want roads to be safe, so historically what we've done, and will continue to do, is go out and educate the public."

If police don't see results of such proactive efforts, Nolte said, officers will be more active in citing people for the new violations.

Kansas is one of 30 states to ban text messaging for all drivers. Eight states prohibit all hand-held cell phone use while driving, and the federal government has banned texting while driving by federal employees on duty and by all commercial truck and bus drivers.

Studies show that texting drivers are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash, according to KDOT. The proportion of drivers distracted at the time of fatal crashes increased from 8 percent in 2004 to 11 percent in 2008, when nearly 6,000 people died and more than a half a million were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver.

These numbers, while large, may not show the true size of the problem, since driver distractions may be vastly under-reported to law enforcement, KDOT said.

"Drivers take their eyes off the road five seconds per message on average," said Pete Bodyk, KDOT traffic safety manager, citing federal research. "That is long enough for a vehicle traveling 55 mph to go 134 yards — farther than a football field and its end zones.

"We urge all drivers to 'put it down' when behind the wheel to avoid a ticket and to save lives."

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