Several North Texas Police Departments Struggle to Enforce Texting While Driving Laws

The enforcement of laws banning texting while driving varies greatly across North Texas according to statistics obtained by NBC 5.

Currently, Arlington, Bedford, Denton, Farmers Branch, Grand Prairie, Rowlett and Stephenville are the only cities in North Texas that have an ordinance banning texting while driving. Those seven cities have issued a total of 2090 citations since the first ordinance was adopted in 2010.

Last year there were 103,576 car crashes involving a distracted driver. 463 of those accidents were fatal.

NBC 5 requested citation information from police departments in those cities with an ordinance to see how many tickets have been issued. The data is current as of April 10, 2016 – one day after Emma Shaffer and her daughter Emma "Tita" were killed in a head-on collision in Argyle. Denton police said the driver of the other car, a mother also with her daughter, was texting. All four people were killed.

James Shaffer, Emma's husband, struggles to cope with the fact that his wife’s violent crash was the result of a text message.

"Someone came clear across a lane of traffic and hit my wife's car head on causing it to kill my wife and daughter? Just because of a text? It's unreal. It's not believable," Shaffer said.

When police arrived on the scene the two cars were still touching. Sergeant Daryn Briggs said neither driver had time to make any kind of reaction or corrective measure.

"There's absolutely no reason to kill somebody over using your phone. (Enforcement) is critically important. We have to stop these crashes," said Sergeant Daryn Briggs of the Denton Police Department, the agency that investigated the crash.

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The number of citations issued for texting while driving violations range from zero tickets written in Rowlett to 865 tickets written in Grand Prairie in 2015.

Enforcement of Denton's ban on texting while driving started in 2015. Officers have written 39 tickets in that time.

"I think we should do better, but I think it points to how difficult it is to make the enforcement," Briggs said. "With our version you almost have to be stopped in traffic, or if the officer is stationary, watching traffic go by."

Denton city council members admit the law is not perfect. They'll soon consider a hands-free ordinance.

"We understand the ambiguity with our policy as it relates to enforcement. We knew that going into this. Our goal is to really push forward more positive behavior," said Councilman Kevin Roden. "When we don't have a full on hands-free policy it makes it hard to enforce because someone can have a phone in their hand to talk, which is legitimate, versus someone who has their phone in their hand to text."

Briggs said officers are more likely to pull a driver who spends a lengthy amount of time on their phone.

"You have to be able to watch the person long enough to determine what are they doing with their hands. Without a witness to it a lot of times we have to rely on the person admitting, 'Yes, I was messing with my phone,'" he said.

Rowlett police point to the inherent challenges of enforcing the city's texting while driving ban as the reason why there have been no citations written since their ban was passed in 2014. The police department and city leaders declined to comment on the effectiveness of the city’s enforcement, only providing a list of 64 citations written to drivers for using their phone in a school zone.

Enforcement does not appear to be an issue in Grand Prairie. Sergeant Eric Hanson said the high number of tickets is due to teamwork.

"What we've done in the past is have a two officer detail, sometimes in an unmarked vehicle, specifically watching for texting while driving," he said.

Texting while driving has been banned in Grand Prairie since 2013. Officers wrote 11 tickets that year. 239 tickets were issued the following year, and in 2015 officers wrote 865 tickets. Despite the high numbers, Hansen said driver behavior has not changed much.

"It's pretty common for us to see somebody engaged in a behavior with their phone that is very obviously not in the course of making a phone call," he said. "These officers have become used to the ordinance and have become pretty good about picking out those violators and taking the enforcement action."

Officers who spoke to NBC 5 all agreed that enforcement would greatly improve if a statewide hands-free law was passed.

"If they decide to strengthen it I think our numbers should go up. I think crashes like this serve as a reminder to all officers why we need to follow the enforcement aspect of that very critically," Briggs said.

James Shaffer wonders if a hands-free ban would have saved his wife and daughter, but he's certain that the time for passing more stringent laws on distracted driving is now.

"You operate a vehicle, you text on the phone, you’re going to kill someone," he said.

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