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Texting ban: Are drivers getting the message?

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The goal of a statewide ban against texting while driving was to put the brakes on the dangerous habit among New Mexico drivers.

That doesn’t appear to be the case – at least so far.

In fact, there’s been a continued increase in the number of citations issued by State Police officers since the ban took effect three years ago, according to numbers obtained by the Journal.

Since July 2016, State Police have averaged roughly five citations a day for texting while driving, compared with an average of a little over one citation a day in the first months after the law hit the state’s books.

State Police Chief Pete Kassetas acknowledged earlier this week the law hasn’t been a major “policy push” for law enforcement, and said that it’s often difficult to enforce. That’s because State Police officers usually only issue citations when they can see a driver blatantly texting while behind the wheel or when they observe erratic driving.

Kassetas said he doesn’t know how many accidents have been caused by texting drivers, but he said the practice still appears to be prevalent.

“I’d be going out on a limb if I were to say it had changed behavior – I don’t know if it has or hasn’t,” Kassetas told the Journal. “But I’ve seen (drivers texting) many times on the interstate between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.”

In an attempt to curb the prevalence of texting while driving, Gov. Susana Martinez announced an ad campaign Friday that will run this month. The ad features a woman who answers a text message while driving and kills a child crossing the street.

But it was unclear whether additional state resources would be directed toward enforcement efforts.

State Police officers had issued 1,696 citations for texting while driving from July 2016 through mid-June, according to data provided in response to a request filed under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act.

In the preceding year, from July 2015 through June 2016, there were 1,029 such citations issued – or fewer than three per day. And there were just 362 citations issued in the first 10 months after the law’s enactment in July 2014.

While enforcing the texting ban hasn’t been a top priority for State Police officers, Kassetas said the citation numbers may be going up due to officers’ increasing familiarity with the law.

“Obviously, more officers are aware of the statute and are utilizing it,” he said.

New Mexico became the 43rd state in the nation to bar texting while driving when Martinez signed into law the 2014 bill, and other states have followed suit in the past few years. Currently, there are only three states – Arizona, Montana and Missouri – that do not have texting bans for drivers of all ages on their books, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The New Mexico law not only bars drivers from texting while driving but also prohibits them from reading or viewing text messages while they’re stopped at traffic lights, though there’s an exception for summoning emergency assistance.

The fine for a first-time violation of the law is $25, and subsequent violations are punishable by a $50 fine. An attempt to increase the fine to $100 for a first violation passed the Senate but stalled in the House during this year’s 60-day legislative session.

Sen. Steven Neville, R-Aztec, who sponsored that legislation, said drivers might take note if the penalty were stiffer.

“It’s $25 for something that’s as statistically significant as drinking and driving – that’s not much of a penalty,” Neville said.

He also said the push for tougher penalties was prompted by the death of Michael Jakino of Farmington, who was killed while riding his motorcycle near Durango, Colo., in September 2015 in an accident caused by a distracted driver.

However, Kassetas said educating drivers about the risks of texting while driving could be more effective than increased penalties.

The new ad campaign announced Friday by the governor will attempt to accomplish that task, as it will feature ads, billboards and other materials aimed at reminding New Mexicans of the dangers of distracted driving.

In 2015, 42 percent of American high school students who had driven in the past 30 days reported sending a text message or email while driving, according to a survey by the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

In addition to the state ban, Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces are among the New Mexico cities that have their own ordinances against texting while driving.