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The real enforcers

Twenty-one-year-old Chandler Gerber told authorities he was sending a text message when he drove his van into the back of a buggy last year and killed three members of the Martin Schwartz family, including a 3-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl.

Adams County Prosecutor Christopher Harvey said six jurors found Chandler was negligent but that he didn’t break the law. No charges were filed. If the grand jury’s decision is baffling in a case involving three fatalities and the driver’s admission that he was texting, consider how difficult it is for law enforcement officers to routinely enforce Indiana’s texting-while-driving law.

The law, which went into effect two years ago, was aimed at discouraging drivers from a practice that clearly puts them and others at risk. It prohibits drivers from typing, sending or reading messages and emails unless they are using a hands-free device or voice-operated technology. It doesn’t, however, prohibit Internet use while driving, including posting messages on Facebook or entering an address into a mapping system.

Determining exactly what a motorist is doing is the problem.

“If they can’t see the phone, obviously, it makes it difficult,” said Fort Wayne Police Chief Rusty York, whose department issued just five tickets for texting while driving in 2012.

The West Lafayette Police Department has made only one arrest under the new law. Sgt. Art Choate told the Journal-Courier he was in the “right place at the right time” to see a motorist commit a minor traffic violation, then pull up next to the car at an intersection and see the driver typing a text message on an iPhone screen.

Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, voted against the 2011 bill because of the enforcement difficulty. The law does not allow police officers to confiscate a phone to determine whether the motorist was texting while driving.

A stricter law might seem to be the answer, but it’s probably not. New research from the University of Utah found that technology developments, including hands-free devices and voice-activated text applications, still result in distracted driving because of the cognitive skills required.

It’s likely that Indiana’s current law serves to keep most law-abiding – and sensible – motorists from texting while driving. Those who willfully ignore it aren’t likely to be swayed by the prospect of being caught texting. They need to be educated to the danger of doing so.

Efforts such as Parkview Trauma Centers’ Don’t Text and Drive campaign are the best approach to teaching and reminding motorists of the risks involved. Representatives for the program were invited to Geneva, Switzerland, last month to share practices from the effective program.

Placing responsibility for a life-saving decision in the hands of drivers instead of on police officers is the best approach.