Distracted driving tickets in Colorado very rare as enforcement proves difficult
Distracted driving causes an average of 40 car crashes each day in Colorado, according to federal statistics, and in 2016 the habit was implicated in 67 of the state’s roadway deaths.
But despite awareness that texting and driving are a dangerous combination, survey data indicate that the problem remains extremely common. And while there are laws against distracted driving, they can be difficult to enforce, leaving the work of changing behavior largely to education and outreach efforts.
In 2017, state lawmakers increased the penalties for texting while driving from $50 to $300 and from one point to four points on a driver’s license. On the front lines, however, some law enforcement officials say distracted driving can’t be ticketed out of existence.
In the past year, for instance, the Summit County Sheriff’s Office issued only two citations for distracted driving.
“I wouldn’t say we write a lot of tickets for it, but we’re always looking for it because it’s so dangerous,” Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said.
FitzSimons said part of the reason the number is so small is because deputies will often ticket for the more serious offense — weaving or speeding, for instance — and let the driver off with a warning about texting.
More often than not, however, it’s simply too difficult for officers to prove that the person was texting — even if it seems obvious to their trained eyes.
“It’s very difficult for us to prove, but based on my training and experience, there are a lot more people driving distracted than we can cite for,” said Colin Remillard, spokesman for Summit County’s Colorado State Patrol troop. “A lot of our enforcement of distracted driving is based on the results of distracted driving rather than the act itself.”
While the 2017 law increased distracted driving penalties, it also establishes that police officers can only write a ticket if they directly observe a driver using a phone and driving carelessly at the same time. The latter is obvious, but the former is not.
“Distracted is a state of mind, and it’s hard to prove if a person is distracted unless they have a phone in their face,” Remillard said.
Given that context, Remillard said, education is likely to be more effective than ticketing laws when it comes to changing behavior.
That’s one of the goals of St. Anthony Summit Medical Center’s ThinkFirst program, a chapter of a national injury prevention nonprofit that focuses on student outreach at Summit County schools.
“Our message is, use your mind to protect your body so that a bad decision doesn’t haunt you for the rest of your life,” said ThinkFirst director Holly Adnan.
ThinkFirst’s main goal is to prevent brain and spinal cord injuries, and the program has had particular success increasing helmet use among local kids, Adnan said.
While the group’s programming covers nearly all age levels, the distracted driving component is geared primarily toward Summit Middle School and Summit High School, where students are already behind the wheel or close to it.
The wide-ranging program includes giving out signal-blocking cell phone bags and teaching kids social cues they can use to discourage their friends and parents from texting while driving.
Hands-on education is also an important part of the program’s work, such as bringing guest speakers to schools, where they share their stories of serious injuries or loved ones lost at the hands of distracted divers.
More light-hearted demonstrations can be useful, too.
“One thing I’ve done with the kids is have them try to play Bop-it with a cell phone in one hand to get them to see that it’s really impossible to multitask and do both things well,” Adnan said.
That lesson can be lost while doing something as routine as driving, especially if the texting habit becomes entrenched.
“It’s really important to educate people on how far they can actually travel at a given speed in five seconds or three seconds while looking at their phone,” Remillard said. ‘The distances are huge, and people need to be aware of that.”
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Pitkin County administrators are proposing a more than $142 million budget for 2020, which is about $6 million less than this year because of fewer construction projects and capital improvements.