When the town of Columbus, Ohio, banned texting while driving in May 2010, city leaders there — just like those in the city of Charleston — hoped it would curb one of the more dangerous habits drivers do behind the wheel.
In reality, prosecutors say, the law that began with good intentions fell short when cases moved from the car to the courtroom.
Nearly one-third of the 140 citations written in that college town and state capital were dismissed, in part because the prosecutions became too cumbersome, officials said. Others were dropped as part of plea deals, among other reasons.
One of the biggest hurdles, Columbus assistant city prosecutor Melanie Tobias said, is that while the law banned texting while driving, it did not ban the acts of dialing a cellphone or accessing data and photographs.
The result, she said, was that without an admission by drivers that they were texting at the time they were spotted (which is why police seek a confession when they ask “do you know why I pulled you over?”), prosecutions became less of a slam dunk.
Equally troubling was the cost of making a case, she told The Post and Courier. For instance, if a driver’s texting records had to be obtained, it could mean paying for witnesses from phone companies to appear, potentially adding to the expense.
“It’s a lot of work for a minor misdemeanor offense,” Tobias said.
Charleston City Council will hold a public hearing Monday on the city-proposed ban on texting while driving. Council members are expected to take a first vote on the notion as soon as Tuesday. Already there are divisions within the ranks.
While Mayor Joe Riley supports the texting ban, City Councilman Mike Seekings has suggested that outlawing just texting within the city would be unenforceable because the acts of texting and phone-dialing are so similar. He has suggested exploring going “hands-free” across the city instead.
Councilman William Dudley Gregorie said the city should go a step further by banning all hand-held device usage — including phone, text and Internet — on “anything that moves,” he said, to include cars, bikes and skateboarding.
Charleston’s proposed ban would prohibit drivers from using hand-held devices behind the wheel to cover any form of texting, the reading of texts, e-mailing or typing. Simply talking on a cellphone while driving is not being targeted.
The fine for violators is set at $100, plus court costs. Enforcement would be done by city police officers who observe the practice.
The ban would cover any person in charge of a motor vehicle in motion on a public street or highway within the city limits. Exceptions include the operator of a motor vehicle that is lawfully parked or stopped, or a law enforcement officer, a member of a fire department or the operator of a public or private ambulance who is in the course of performing their official work duties.
For violators, no driver’s license penalty points would be assessed. Subpoenas for records from a phone company or time carrier could be pursued.
Mount Pleasant last month took a step toward banning texting while driving by making violators subject to a $50 fine. If a traffic accident is involved, a driver could face an additional fine of up to $200.
Meanwhile, driving-safety experts say that whatever City Council adopts, the effort would ring hollow if there were not a continued and aggressive enforcement policy on the part of police long after a ban takes effect.
Justin McNaull, AAA’s director of state relations and the group’s expert on distracted driving, said that for a no-texting ban to work there has to be a change in behavior across a wide spectrum of drivers. A mistake, he said, would be to have a “couple weeks of visible enforcement and then be done.”
The better move, he said, would be to have a long-standing and high-profile campaign of enforcement.
“People need to believe there’s a likelihood of getting a ticket for doing this, and that the ticket is going to carry some sting,” McNaull said.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.