More than six months after the state of Texas instituted a law prohibiting drivers from texting while driving, police departments from Galveston County’s two largest cities say they have issued few citations against drivers for the infraction.
During the first six months the law was in effect — from Sept. 1, 2017, to March 1 — the city of Galveston did not issue a single citation under the state’s texting while driving law, according to a response to a public information request submitted by The Daily News.
The city of League City has issued seven citations for texting while driving since the law went into effect, a spokesman said on Monday.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed the texting ban into effect last June, after the proposal was approved by state legislators. It had failed passage in three previous legislative sessions.
The ban created a misdemeanor offense for people who use a portable wireless communication device to read, write or send electronic messages while operating a vehicle.
Violators can be fined up to $200 for the infraction.
But while distracted driving is a contributor to many local car accidents, the way the current law is written makes it difficult for officers to cite drivers for the violation, Galveston Police Department spokesman Capt. Joshua Schirard said.
“The way the law is written it is very, very difficult to prove that the person is using the device in that manner,” Schirard said.
While the law prohibits people from using devices while driving, it does allow people to use their devices while a vehicle is stopped. The law also allows the use of the device in an emergency or a potential emergency, Schirard said.
When the Galveston Police Department does issue a citation under the texting ban, it will likely come from an after-the-fact investigation of a crash, Schirard said. He compared it to how some people are sometimes charged with intoxicated manslaughter after blood tests come back.
“The reason the law was written was so that we had an investigative tool,” Schirard said.
Officers can seek a search warrant if they suspect a violation, he said. But the law does not allow police officers to search a person’s phone at the scene of the crash, he said.
“It’s very, very difficult for us,” Schirard said. “It’s not like most traffic laws.”
League City Police Department spokesman Kelly Williamson declined to speculate on the reasons why so few people had been cited for the violation in the past seven months.
While there’s been little meaningful enforcement of the law, state officials are pushing the texting ban as part of an awareness campaign this month.
The Texas Department of Transportation said there were 537,475 motor vehicles crashes on Texas roads in 2017. Of those, 100,687 crashes and 444 deaths were connected to distracted driving, officials said.
The transportation department partnered with AT&T to bring virtual reality distracted driving simulators to 18 Texas cities this month. There are no plans for the campaign to visit Galveston County.