When state lawmakers increased the penalties for texting while driving in Colorado, they legalized it in most cases.
Colorado formerly barred adult drivers from sending text messages or manually entering data into a device such as a cell phone. Violators faced a $50 fine and a one-point penalty on their driver’s licenses.
The highly publicized new law hiked the fine to $300 and four points. But according to reporting by The Denver Post’s John Frank, the texting prohibition now applies only when you do it in a “careless or imprudent manner.” The newspaper ascribed the loose wording to a compromise between the bill’s sponsors and others who felt it was too stringent to penalize any texting driver.
“The simple fact is that if you are texting while driving but not being careless, it’s no longer illegal,” Tim Lane of the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council told Frank.
It’s important to note that drivers under 18 years are still prohibited in all cases from using cell phones to talk or text while driving.
The turnabout comes after years of support for tougher laws by police agencies and The Colorado Department of Transportation. Agency leaders view texting and other forms of “distracted driving” as major contributors to the state’s traffic accident crisis. At least 605 people died from auto accidents in Colorado in 2016, marking an 11 percent increase from the previous year.
CDOT has been mounting continuous publicity campaigns to warn drivers about the risks. In its 2016 survey of Colorado drivers, the agency found that 22 percent had read a text message while driving in the previous week. And 15 percent of those surveyed said they had written at least one text message during that time.
Still Hoping for Improvement
Although the law’s prohibition is narrower, some leaders hope it will still do good.
Maile Gray, executive director of the organization Drive Smart Colorado, told the Denver Post the looser standard is sending the wrong message to drivers, but the tougher penalties should still do something to discourage motorists from texting and driving.
She points out that text messages, on average, take 4.6 seconds to read or send. If you’re driving at 55 mph, you can look up from a text and find that you’ve traveled the length of a football field without watching the road.
Mike Phibbs, of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, says the law will shift the focus to the most serious cases. “It’s actually helped clarify the issue and targets what’s really causing the problem,” he said.
Making It Harder to Prove
The new law makes it more difficult to cite drivers for texting and it opens the way for challenging Colorado citations more easily in court.
To issue a citation under the new rules, police now have to follow two criteria: they have to see the texting themselves, instead of relying on witness statements, and they have to see “careless driving”, which is loosely defined but usually cited in combination with other traffic offenses, such as improper lane usage or speeding.
Colorado State Patrol Trooper Josh Lewis told the Post:
“Ultimately, if you are texting while driving, you are not driving carefully. There is no way to divide your attention with a cellphone or any other mobile device and safely drive. … We are looking for multiple (violations), but it’s very easy to get that careless when you are texting while driving.”