The West Bridgewater Police Department’s widely publicized crackdown on drivers texting behind the wheel earlier this month is not likely to be undertaken any time soon by other area police departments, who say lean budgets, lack of staff, and other priorities make such massive enforcement operations nearly impossible.
Massachusetts is one of 39 states that ban texting while driving, but the law, enacted in September 2010, is not an easy one to enforce since it requires catching the offender in the act.
West Bridgewater tied up seven officers in its crackdown on Jan. 5. Three plainclothes spotters watched drivers on Route 106, while officers in two cruisers waited a short distance down the road, ready to stop drivers seen texting.
Of the 51 drivers pulled over, 37 were issued $100 citations. Police had to let go 14 drivers who said they were dialing phones or adjusting navigation systems.
Based on the success of the enforcement effort, West Bridgewater police plan to continue cracking down on texting drivers with similar operations once a month. But East Bridgewater Police Chief John Cowan said his department does not intend to follow suit.
“Funding is the problem,” said Cowan, who added that his officers give out fewer than 10 tickets for texting per year. “With budget cuts, you do what you can.”
Making the charge stick is also a challenge, according to the East Bridgewater chief.
“I was talking to our court prosecutor, and even the ones that get caught, some are under appeal,” Cowan said. “People say they were doing something else.”
Catching drivers texting is tricky, agreed Milton Police Chief Richard Wells.
“How can we tell if you’re texting or just on the phone or scrolling,” Wells said. “It’s not as readily apparent as people think it is.”
Wells said he commended West Bridgewater for its effort.
“They wanted to send the message, ‘Hey, we’re watching you,’ ” he said. “But to me, as a police chief, I have other priorities on what to focus on.”
West Bridgewater police Lieutenant Victor Flaherty said he made enforcement of the ban on texting while driving a department priority after doing a study of local traffic accidents for a recent 30-day period.
“There were 25 accidents, and 16 were rear-enders that indicate distracted driving,” Flaherty said. “That brought it to the forefront, and it’s one of my pet peeves.”
In neighboring Bridgewater, police Lieutenant Thomas Schlatz said his department has only issued one ticket per year related to texting during the last two years.
“West Bridgewater did it the right way, using plainclothes officers, since it’s very hard to do it in a cruiser,” Schlatz said. “But to do it like West Bridgewater, you have to have the manpower. In Bridgewater, we have manpower issues, and the demand in calls for service is too high.”
Plymouth police officers have more than 100 square miles to patrol, and police Captain John Rogers said the department does not dedicate staff solely to catching texting drivers.
“Officers do it as part of patrol,” he said. “They do traffic enforcement between calls for service.”
Rogers said the department gives out “maybe a half-dozen” citations for texting per year, “and most were in conjunction with motor vehicle accidents.”
Citations for texting behind the wheel are relatively few statewide, when one considers there are more than 4.7 million licensed drivers in Massachusetts. Only 1,146 tickets for texting violations were handed out in 2011, according to Sara Lavoie, press secretary for the state Department of Transportation. Figures for 2012 were only available through September, with 1,278 given out in that nine-month period.
Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, said states that have texting bans but lack accompanying bans on using hand-held cellphones at the wheel are going to have enforcement problems.
“People are going to say I wasn’t texting; I was dialing,” Adkins said. “The big message here is Massachusetts did the right thing by having a law on texting behind the wheel, but it could make it better by banning hand-held cellphone use.”
Terrel Harris, spokesman for the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, said federal transportation officials recently awarded $275,000 to State Police to work on enforcing the texting ban.
“The funds will allow State Police to conduct more enforcement patrols,” Harris wrote in an e-mail.
Canton Police Chief Ken Berkowitz said his department has been focused on school safety in recent months, but he plans to have his officers enforcing the texting ban “in areas with a lot of traffic” come spring.
“I think it’s a good idea,” Berkowitz said. “I applaud West Bridgewater.”Christine Legere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.