Colorado Drivers May Face Higher Penalties For Texting And Driving

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Originally published on March 19, 2017 9:38 pm

There are plenty of things that lead to distracted driving along Colorado’s roadways: eating, putting on makeup or changing the station on your radio. Texting and driving is one distraction state lawmakers want to crack down on. 

"Phones these days are ubiquitous," said Andy Karsian, the legislative liaison for the Colorado Department of Transportation. "We are such a plugged in society and it makes it so simple to use them."

The number of traffic fatalities in Colorado has gone up by 25 percent over the past two years. For Karsian, texting and driving stands out as the distraction that’s grown significantly in use.

"Twenty-five percent of Coloradans said they read a message while driving and 16 percent said they write messages," said Karsian. "And those are just the ones that reported doing so."

Right now, texting and driving is a primary offense, meaning you can be pulled over for it. But the fine is one of the lowest penalties in the country: $50 and one point on your driver’s license.

"Hardly an incentive to not text. Increasing it is a no-brainer," said Karsian.

That’s what Senate Bill 27 seeks to do.

If approved, the penalty would jump to $300 and four points on your license. When you lose your license for a year after twelve points, getting caught could carry a lot more weight. 

SB 27 does more than increase penalties for texting and driving. It also distinguishes between “data entry”, such as texting and emailing, and other activities. 

"Because we do believe ... that there is a difference between engaging in a text conversation, and the action and time it takes to dial a phone number or pull up a map to look at traffic," said David Hall, a sergeant with the Colorado State Patrol.

The measure also loosens some current restrictions by allowing texting if you’re stopped at a red light or stuck in traffic. That’s illegal right now, even though the state patrol said officers don’t ticket for that. Republican Sen. Owen Hill from Colorado Springs requested the change, bringing his party on board to back the bill.

"It has got to be tied to dangerous behavior. Obviously dangerous behavior is looking down for an extended period of time and not looking at the road,” said Hill. “That’s not dangerous at a stoplight. There’s a very high-tech way of dealing with those problems if someone’s not paying attention at a stoplight -- that’s called a horn."

The bill’s Democratic sponsor, Sen. Lois Court of Denver, says she’s OK with the change.

"If you’re stuck in traffic, as Senator Hill has been saying all along, and you’ve got a wreck in front of you and you’re going to be sitting there for a half hour and you pull your phone out to say, ‘Honey I’m going to be running late,’ that shouldn’t be an offense," said Court.

Opponents say the bill won’t change behavior, but Hall strongly disagrees with that notion. 

"If [the fine] was raised to $10,000, do you think you’d ever pick up your phone in a car on the off chance that somebody like me would see you and write you a $10,000 dollar ticket?" Hall said. "Then it’s just a matter of finding a sweet spot." 

Hall says there’s no clear data on just how many crashes are tied specifically to texting.

"It’s very difficult to find out what people were doing without pulling warrants and subpoenas for cell phone records,” he said. “And even then, if I ask five people what time the crash happened, I get five different answers, and just because the data isn’t there doesn’t mean it’s not happening."

Sometimes, it’s obvious.

Hall said he vividly remembers arriving at a fatal crash and seeing the young driver’s cellphone light still on. He read the text she had sent about her favorite song playing on the radio.

"And it’s just like that. One minute somebody is alive and living their life, and the next minute they’re dead, and we’re trying to figure out what’s going on and the song they were listening to on the radio is still playing. Of the 606 people who died on the roadways last year in Colorado, I bet every single one of those did not contemplate that they would be dead by the time this song is done playing on the radio."

SB 27 cleared the Senate with only one no vote, and is now on its way to the House, where it will be heard before the House Judiciary Committee on March 21.

Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.

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