CHEYENNE — Motorists in Wyoming will have to put their cell phones and electronic messaging devices away starting today, as a new statewide ban on texting while driving takes effect.
The question now is how effective the ban will be to curb texting behind the wheel, especially given predictions about how difficult it will be for police officers to enforce it.
Under the law, passed by the Legislature earlier this year, anyone caught writing, sending or reading a “text-based communication” with a hand-held electronic device while driving in Wyoming will be slapped with a $75 fine. The crime is a primary offense, meaning that police officers can pull motorists over for no other reason than suspecting them of texting.
The law doesn’t prohibit talking, playing games or looking up a phone number on cell phones, though several Wyoming cities — including Cheyenne and Green River — already have their own bans on using hand-held phones in any way behind the wheel. Texting from a parked vehicle is also still allowed.
Sen. Floyd Esquibel, a Cheyenne Democrat who succeeded in passing the law this year after several failed attempts in the past, said he hoped the new law would make Wyoming roads and highways safer — not just for texters, but for their fellow drivers as well.
“I hope it gets that message across that driving is serious business and you have to pay attention to the road,” he said.
Though there’s no data on exactly how many traffic accidents and fatalities have been caused by texting from behind the wheel in Wyoming, a recent study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that manual text messaging raised the risk of a crash or near crash to more than 23 times higher than “nondistracted” driving.
Casper Police Department Capt. Chris Walsh said most of the 739 traffic collisions in Casper so far this year were caused by driver inattention. Texting while driving, he said, contributes to that number.
“Texting seems to be more distractive than just talking on a cell phone,” Walsh said.
However, many question how well law enforcement officials will be able to discern whether a driver is using a phone — and whether that driver is using the phone to text or for a legal reason.
“Is the person playing a game? Are they putting in a phone number to call somebody, or looking up somebody’s address?” Wyoming Highway Patrol Sgt. Stephen Townsend asked rhetorically. “It’s hard to tell, especially when you’re meeting somebody at 65 miles an hour, 75 miles an hour — or going, even, in the same direction, when you can look over at them and see what they’re doing.”
Several young drivers in Cheyenne scoffed at their city’s 9-month-old texting ban, saying it’s done little to stop them or their friends from writing and sending electronic messages while driving.
At Cheyenne’s Frontier Mall on Wednesday, 17-year-olds Ty Graham and Koby Selfridge said while they knew a lot of people who text behind the wheel, they didn’t know of anyone who had been caught and fined.
“It’s not going to change anything, really. People still text and drive,” Graham said. “I don’t think about (the ban), to be honest. I just sit there and text.”
Esquibel acknowledged that it’ll be difficult for police to enforce the texting ban. But he said he hopes the ban will reduce texting because of peer pressure from passengers or from self-enforcement — just as people don’t litter or cheat on their taxes even if there’s little chance they’ll be caught.
“I agree it’s not one of the easiest laws to enforce, but I think it’s important that people recognize that it can be enforced, and there are some penalties attached,” he said. “And of course, the supreme penalty is that the person could get killed while not paying attention to their driving because of something like texting.”
Kamaria Stephens, a 22-year-old Cheyenne resident, echoed Esquibel’s thoughts, saying she thinks a texting ban is a good idea.
“It’s pretty good — it keeps your eyes on the road,” she said. “When it can help save people’s lives, I think it’s worth it.”
Contact Jeremy Pelzer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 307-632-1244.