Few tickets written for texting, driving

'Tough' talk not followed by enforcement

HOUSTON - More than 20 cities across Texas have laws against texting and driving, but Local 2 Investigates has uncovered officers are writing few tickets to drivers.

For those who know the grim reality of what can happen with a distracted driver, the lack of enforcement is frustrating.

"They don't care," said Erin Smith, a passenger in a suspected texting and driving accident near Beaumont.

Smith is now paralyzed because of the wreck.

"They're not cutting down on it like drinking and driving. They're so strict about that. Why can't they be as strict about texting and driving?" Smith said.

Local 2 Investigates surveyed cities across the Houston area that have ordinances against texting and driving. The investigation found most police departments are writing only a handful of tickets per month.

Since August 2010, Galveston police have written 60 tickets. That's less than three tickets on average each month. In that same time, officers in Missouri City officers have written 55 tickets. In West University, police officers have issued 33 tickets, but that number also includes warnings.

Since 2011, Conroe police have issued just 13 tickets for texting and driving. Magnolia police have written just four tickets.

In Bellaire, officers have issued two texting and driving tickets in more than two years.

"It does surprise me," said State Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat who has pushed for a statewide ban on texting and driving. "Laws have to be enforced for it to work. That's extremely important."

Police in every city said while the laws do bring public awareness to the dangers of distracted driving, the primary problem in enforcement is catching people in the act. The problem, they said, is officers have to determine if a driver is dialing, looking for a number or actually texting. Many times that can be difficult for officers to see, and even tougher to prove.

"The ordinance allows you to scroll through your phone," said Corp. Anthony Hipolito, a spokesman at the Austin Police Department. "The law allows you to dial on your phone. Because of that, it does make the law hard to enforce."

Austin is the largest city in Texas with a texting and driving law. Police write about 16 tickets per month. The Austin ordinance says officers have to prove drivers were "texting." Nothing else violates the law.

Many cities have the same ordinance. Other cities like Galveston and Missouri City don't allow any typing on your phone at all. But the law differs city by city.

"A hands-free ordinance, where you have to be on a hands-free device in your car at all times, would make it 100 percent easier to enforce," said Hipolito.

El Paso is the only city in Texas with a complete ban on handling cellphones while you drive. All use of cellphones must be "hands free." In less than two years, El Paso police have written more than 15,000 tickets.

"Clearly the public safety message, and a sanction that is real, needs to be there," Coleman said. "That's how you change behavior."

Coleman said a uniform state law that goes beyond just "texting" and driving would be more effective and easier to enforce.

Currently, the only statewide law bans cellphone use in school zones. The city of Houston does not have a ban on texting and driving.

Mayor Annise Parker had said she is in support of a state law instead of a city ordinance. A law that would have banned texting and driving across the state, was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry last legislative session.

Lawmakers said they plan to push for the ban again when the state legislature convenes in January.

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