By Travis Gulbrandson
Even though the ordinance banning texting while driving has been on the books since May, no one has been ticketed for it yet.
Vermillion Police Chief Matt Betzen said this is due mainly to the difficulty of enforcing the law.
“You need to be stopped in a stationary place (to spot texters), and the officers are either going on calls or driving around,” Betzen said. “One of the big things we do is speeding. Speeding is not on the intersections. It’s out on the roadway. It’s a different enforcement model.”
Betzen made these comments during a special meeting with the Vermillion City Council on Monday.
The meeting followed a recent article in the University of South Dakota’s newspaper The Volante, which reported that city police had given only two warnings and no tickets to texting drivers.
Betzen told councilmembers that following the article’s publication, he tried to gauge the number of violations by sitting in an unmarked car in two locations for 30 minutes each: Near the intersection of Cherry and Dakota streets, and in the Muenster University Center parking lot.
“I’d say there were about nine cars total in an hour I could have stopped,” he said. “Whether or not they were texting, that becomes the big question, because (the ordinance) allowed the use of GPS and other things.”
Council member Tom Davies expressed frustration at the lack of citations.
“I made a big stink about this, because I do walk,” Davies said. “Granted, I don’t have a real rapid pace, but I can certainly see that there’s a lot of texting going on. Sometimes at stop signs, I’m truly amazed people are driving down the road, and they’ve got their phone (out), and they’ve got maybe their little pinkies on the steering wheel.
“There have been at least two times where I could have been easily hit walking in a crosswalk because somebody was not paying attention. That kind of bothers me, that we went to this effort, and there hasn’t been a lot of enforcement,” he said.
Davies did acknowledge that the ordinance was difficult to enforce, which Betzen had said during his initial presentation to the city council earlier this year.
While Betzen said a certain amount of people will stop texting while driving simply because it is the law, others won’t, and he doesn’t know how to get them to stop.
“I am somewhat cynical that education will do it, because I don’t think it’s possible to not be educated that texting is a dangerous thing to do while driving,” he said. “It’s kind of like drinking and driving. How could you possibly live in our society and not know that it’s a bad thing to do?”
Following the article in The Volante, Betzen contacted other communities in the state that have enacted texting-while-driving bans to see how many tickets they have written.
Sioux Falls, which passed a similar ordinance a few months before Vermillion, has written at least 26, he said.
“I talked to the front desk guy there about who’s writing the tickets and how they’re doing it, and most of their success has been with motor officers who basically hide near stoplights at busy intersections, and then are able to watch as vehicles stop for a prolonged period of time,” he said.
Betzen said Mitchell has taken this route and made “three or four stops,” but issued no tickets.
Brookings has cited “three or four” drivers, all from accident investigations, he added.
Betzen encouraged Vermillion drivers to report violators to the police department, as they would for someone they suspect to be driving while intoxicated.
“We do that all the time, on all different types of infractions,” he said. “You call and give us a license number and a general description of the driver, (and) we will contact them and say, ‘Hey, someone said that you were texting.’ …
“One of the great things about Vermillion is that we have a low enough crime rate where we actually can do that kind of stuff,” he said.