When Capt. Adam Weingartner is off-duty and sitting in his car at a stoplight, that’s when he sees the most drivers texting.
“I pull up next to cars at intersections and I almost invariably look over and see somebody on a phone,” Weingartner, patrol division commander for the Ottawa Police Department, said. “At intersections when people are stopped is where I’ve been able to see it more often. Hopefully by the officers being out and patrol cars being visible and being that deterrent, that’s at least stopping people from doing it at intersections when they need to be paying attention because there’s pedestrians crossing, different traffic crossing the intersections, and maybe another driver who’s not paying attention.”
The Ottawa Police Department has only issued one texting and driving citation in 2016 as a result of a non-injury wreck, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening more often than that, Weingartner said.
“The difficulty in issuing tickets for texting while driving is that proof,” Weingartner said. “If you see somebody driving by you, it’s difficult to say for sure whether they’re making a phone call, which is allowable, or if they’re texting. In order to stop them, you have to have that confirmed violation, so it makes it difficult the way the law’s written right now to be able to do that. Part of that comes when you conduct an interview at an accident scene and that text messages or somebody admits that they were texting while driving, and in those cases, then the citation would be issued.”
Lt. Curtis Hall, with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, said the Fourth Amendment protects drivers from being obligated to show officers their phones after being pulled over or at the scene of a wreck.
“[Texting] probably causes more accidents than we actually know about because some people won’t tell us what they were actually doing,” Hall said. “If we could get a hold of everyone’s cell phone at the scene of accidents, we would see a lot more. They would be able to tell us a lot more about what was actually going on at that time.”
Both Hall and Weingartner said certain areas of town, such as residential areas or downtown, are not more likely to see more texting and driving than another.
“If you’re texting and driving, people do it everywhere, regardless of what street they’re on,” Hall said.
Twenty-two percent of fatal car crashes in Kansas were the result of a distracted driver, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The National Safety Council also reported that the use of cell phones, either texting or talking on the phone, causes around 1.6 million wrecks annually.
“Everyone wants to stay connected, wants to be in touch with everybody,” Hall said.
A 2015 study conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that six out of every 10 moderate to severe crashes involving teenagers also involved distracted driving, but Hall said texting is just as common with older adults.
“Some of the adults are just as bad as the younger kids,” Hall said. “I think part of that is adults nowadays were growing up in that [era] where cell phones were becoming popular, so they’ve grown up with that. Now they’re in adulthood and they don’t see the problem with it. We’ve caught people of all ages doing the same thing. “
“Multitasking” while driving in a misnomer, Hall also said.
“When you’re concentrating on sending a text message or answering the phone or playing with your phone in some way, you’re not paying attention to your surroundings, you’re not paying attention to traffic,” Hall said. “Your attention is divided...You can switch between things and focus your attention on one thing and then go to another one really fast, but you can’t do two things at once. Even talking on the phone and driving, you can see driving skills diminish because they get agitated they’re talking, they’re concentrating on their conversation more than they are on their surroundings. It is a distraction and it causes accidents.”
The U.S. government’s website for distracted driving states that since texting requires “visual, manual, and cognitive attention,” it can be one of the most dangerous distractions for drivers.
“It is a state law, and you’re putting a lot of other people at jeopardy when you take a several-thousand-pound automobile and you’re driving 60 miles an hour down the interstate and you’re taking your eyes off the road,” Hall said. “It seems like only a second ,but at those speeds, you travel hundreds of feet in a second. It’s just not worth it.”
For the Ottawa Police Department, the fine given for texting and driving is $75, with an additional $75 in court costs, Weingartner said.
“Help us out, put down the phone and don’t text and drive,” Weingartner said.
Susan Welte is a Herald staff writer. Email her at email@example.com.