Six years after the state began considering legislation to ban texting while driving, Oklahoma drivers checking a text at the wheel of their vehicles will run the risk of getting fined up to $100 come Sunday.
Oklahoma will become the 46th state to ban texting while driving when the law takes effect, and Tulsa Police officer Leland Ashley says he doesn’t anticipate any grace period before officers begin pulling over drivers they see texting.
“The law comes into effect Nov. 1, and we’ll start enforcing it then,” Ashley said.
The law prohibits operating a motor vehicle on any street or highway in the state “while using a hand-held electronic communication device to manually compose, send or read an electronic text message while the motor vehicle is in motion.”
Exceptions allow for emergency communications, such as to a law enforcement agency or medical professional.
The city of Tulsa adopted an ordinance banning texting while driving on Sept. 25 that will also take effect Sunday, Ashley said.
Tulsa Police Sgt. Shane Tuell said officers who cite a driver for texting and driving will book the driver to Tulsa municipal court, where a judge will assess the fine.
“Officers are never really excited to give someone a citation, but officers are encouraged that we now have the opportunity to be proactive in the action we can take to prevent these collisions,” Tuell said.
The law states that the Department of Public Safety won’t record or assess points for violations, so there’s no possibility that drivers will have their licenses revoked for texting.
It’s unclear how officers will gauge whether drivers were using their phones for texting or other purposes not outlined in the law, such as looking at navigation or changing music.
“I have had questions about how an officer is going to tell which is which,” said Rep. Terry O’Donnell, R-Catoosa, who authored House Bill 1965.
O’Donnell said he envisions that motorists will have to explain their situation to the officers, who will exercise their judgment.
Oklahoma Highway Patrol Lt. John Vincent said engaging in any activity on a hand-held device while driving is a distraction and safety hazard.
“If people argue, I’m using my phone to change the music or something, you’re still diverting your attention from the roadway, which is not safe,” Vincent said.
Officers can seize cellphones as potential evidence but cannot access information from it without a warrant.
Vincent said officers will most likely not file search warrants to confirm that a driver was texting while driving unless he or she caused a serious injury collision or a fatality.
Chuck Mai, vice president of public affairs for AAA Oklahoma, said that when the advocacy organization first proposed the legislation in 2009, it considered seeking a bill that would ban all cell phone use while driving.
“We were tempted to seek a bill against talking on cellphones, fiddling with your GPS, all those things that are huge distractions, but we instead decided to go after a law that we thought would have likelihood of passage,” Mai said.
Mai said a bill prohibiting all those activities “never would’ve seen the light of day” because of an Oklahoma mentality against over-legislating.
“And I feel the same way,” Mai said. “I wish we didn’t have to have a law outlawing texting while driving. I wish people would exercise common sense and put the phone down voluntarily, but that’s not happening. It’s an epidemic on the roads.”
Mai said there were 600 crashes attributed to electronic distraction that resulted in 14 fatalities in Oklahoma in 2013, the most recent year for which the organization has statistics.