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FOX8 investigation: Problems with the North Carolina texting and driving law

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FORSYTH COUNTY -- Distracted driving is rapidly becoming one of the most dangerous contributors to vehicle crashes on North Carolina roadways. Perhaps the most dangerous of distractions is cell phones, and the act of texting while behind the wheel.

"Hey, look, this is a big deal, people are getting hurt, people are getting killed," said Trooper Joshua M. Church, of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol. "Statistics are in now, that are comparing the danger of texting while driving, to that of driving while impaired."

Texting and driving is illegal in North Carolina, along with emailing while behind the wheel, including when the vehicle is stopped.

"[The statute] pretty specifically says by using an electronic device to enter or retrieve text or emails," said Church.

In 2010, 591 drivers were ticketed for texting and driving in the state of North Carolina. Those numbers have increased steadily up to present day, from 904 in 2011, to 1,038 in 2012, and 1,435 in 2013. From Jan. 1 to Oct. 20, 2014, there had been 1,307 people cited under the law -- putting the state on pace to surpass the 2013 numbers by early December.

Those numbers should be much higher, but thanks to how the statute is written many texters are getting out of their tickets, or are not being ticketed in the first place.

"I don't think any will argue that the law is there for safety, but when you start getting to the specifics of the charge if you don't meet the certain elements of the offense, some judges are not going to uphold that," Church said.

The texting and driving law does not include things on electronic devices such as apps, games and GPS.

"Any of the above is equally dangerous," Church said. "But because of the way that the statute is worded, we're seeing occasional times in court where the cases are either getting dismissed or found not guilty by the judge."

Church and fellow troopers observe drivers texting on a regular basis, but proving that they were on a texting screen at the time of the alleged offense is crucial to prosecution.

"I can pull up beside a car and look over and literally the driver is running their thumb across the screen of the phone, typing in numbers, obviously more than just a phone number," said Church. "I've timed people up to one-and-a-half, two minutes before, sitting there just running my stopwatch and the whole time they're texting. Finally I just cut them off by making the traffic stop."

FOX8 accompanied Trooper Church as he took to the roads looking for texters, to experience how difficult it is to write texting and driving tickets first hand.

Our first traffic stop took place on Lewisville-Clemmons Road in Clemmons. Trooper Church drove by three vehicles, operated by drivers who were looking down, appearing to be on their phones, while stopped at a red light. One of the drivers also was not wearing a seatbelt, and Trooper Church pulled him over.

"As you were easing forward I looked over at you actually not wearing your seatbelt," Church said to the driver. "And it looked like you were glancing down, I see your phone's on your lap, you weren't texting or anything were ya?"

The driver denied that he was texting, and without solid proof, Church was forced to only cite him for other traffic infractions.

"My suspicion is he was sitting there texting and probably is being untruthful with me. Either way, he's not wearing a seatbelt, and his tag's expired, so we're going to charge him with that," Church said.

The next traffic stop we witnessed took place on I-40 after a woman was seen swerving in and out of traffic. When we pulled up next to her Church saw that she had her phone in her hand and was not wearing a seatbelt.

"She's either texting, talking or doing something with her phone, I don't know," he said.

The female driver continued to use her phone, even as Trooper Church initiated the traffic stop. She also did not have her license. But again, Trooper Church was not able to cite her for texting and driving.

Instead, he let her off with minor traffic infractions and a reminder, stating; "Remember, if you're doing any kind of texting, email, anything like that, that is flat out illegal."

Church says many members over the highway patrol have resorted to writing tickets for careless and reckless driving because they are more likely to hold up in court.

Senator Stan Bingham, the primary sponsor of the original texting bill, is well aware that the language in the statute leaves has caused problems when it comes to enforcing it.

"The best thing would be ban it all in my opinion," said Bingham, of all electronic device activity behind the wheel.

Bingham said they would be looking at other states, which have banned cell phone use completely, to see how their laws have affected distracted driving-related collisions and deaths.

"Then the highway patrol wouldn't have to worry about it, if they could prosecute them because they were in fact using," Bingham said.

Bingham hopes to get the revision of the bill done in the upcoming long Senate session. He added that he tried moving it along last session, but election season tied up the efforts of many of his fellow lawmakers.

Until the revision, the Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agencies will have to take different avenues in an attempt to curb electronic device use while driving.

Trooper Church displayed one example while visiting high school driver's education classes, where he touched upon distracted driving and what can happen when drivers choose texting over safety.

"The second to the worst-case scenario is you getting yourself killed with that cell phone," Church told one class. "The worst-case-scenario is you causing a wreck and you live with the guilt that you just killed someone else's family member."

The highway patrol is also looking to seize cell phones in fatal crashes when it appears the cell phone played a factor in the collision. Search warrants would be needed to download information for court purposes. By doing this, they are hoping to gather better data to approach the legislature with in an attempt to increase fines/penalties in the future.