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Rhode Island General Assembly Passes New Text-Messaging While Driving Law

Posted by Matthew Marin | Nov 08, 2009 | 0 Comments

The Rhode Island Generaly Assembly has passed a bill which will make it a Traffic Offense to text-message while driving within the State. While no one can argue that texting while driving is a serious driving hazard, the new Rhode Island Law raises serious questions about the ability of local police departments to enforce the law

- Can / should police officers be able to pull a driver over solely for an alleged text-messaging offense?
- Will police officers use the text-messaging traffic offense as a pre-text to pull drivers over?
- What "proof" will the police officer need to produce at trial to convict for text-messaging while driving?

If you have received a Traffic Court Summons for Texting While Driving or any other Rhode Island Traffic Offense contact Rhode Island Traffic Court Attorney Matthew T. Marin at 401-228-8271 or [email protected].

Read below for more information about the new Rhode Island Texting While Driving Law as discussed in The Providence Journal on November 9, 2009:

Texting while driving about to become illegal in R.I.

10:51 AM EST on Monday, November 9, 2009

By Gregory Smith
Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE — People who text-message while driving may soon be looking at something more than their cell-phone view screen.

They may glance at their rear-view mirror, checking for the police.

Because texting while driving will soon be a traffic violation.

The General Assembly has passed a bill to make it so, and Governor Carcieri is expected to sign it.

When he does, Rhode Island would become the 19th state plus the District of Columbia to prohibit the activity, as concern grows across the nation about the issue of distracted driving. Nine of those states prohibit texting only by novice drivers or in limited circumstances.

Six states and D.C. go even further, by prohibiting the use of handheld cell phones while driving.

“This is the height of driving while distracted, and the problem is only getting worse,” said Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown, one of the lead sponsors of the Rhode Island bill. “I cannot think of anything more unsafe than looking down and typing on a phone while trying to drive a vehicle. We must stop this dangerous practice before more people are hurt and even killed.”

Sending, reading or writing a text message, such as an e-mail or instant message, with any kind of data-transmission device while operating a moving motor vehicle would be punishable at the Traffic Tribunal by a fine of $85 on first offense, $100 on second offense, and $125 for a third or subsequent offense.

Two groups already are prohibited in Rhode Island from using a cell phone behind the wheel: drivers younger than 18 and school-bus drivers, except in an emergency, when they are transporting children.

Talking on a cell phone or even texting, some critics have said, is little different from other distractions, such as applying makeup or using a GPS device while a car is moving.

Another lead sponsor, Rep. Peter F. Kilmartin, D-Pawtucket, nevertheless insisted that the prospective texting law “addresses the most egregious form of distracted driving …”

Anecdotal evidence of the threat posed by texters is beginning to accumulate in Rhode Island. For example, according to Sosnowski, a driver whose car struck a police cruiser in South Kingstown in April admitted that he had been texting just before the impact.

President Obama in October signed an order prohibiting federal employees from texting while driving on the job. The U.S. Department of Transportation said that it intends to ban texting by interstate truck and bus drivers and rail operators. And legislation has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate that would tie some federal transportation aid to states having enacted texting bans and taken other steps to reduce distracted driving.

States that restrict cell phone use by drivers are now adding explicit text-messaging restrictions, but some Doubting Thomases such as Russ Rader, spokesman for the national Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, wonder aloud whether the new restrictions will be enforceable and effective.

Research shows that only a total ban on cell phones for motorists, whether hands-free or not, will reduce traffic accidents, the institute contends.

“Texting is less obvious than using a handheld cell phone,” Rader said. In the hope of escaping notice, “people can hold the cell phone below window level” while texting.

Some veteran law enforcers, including Kilmartin, a retired Pawtucket police captain, disagree. Policing illegal texting is similar to policing any kind of careless driving, they say.

Connecticut has a four-year-old law against handheld cell phone use by drivers that includes texting. In 2008 the state police gave out 10,818 tickets for violations.

“We've had a very positive experience” and the law is altering motorist behavior and enhancing highway safety, according to state police Lt. J. Paul Vance.

“Many times you'll see them [texters] almost weaving like a drunk driver. That's a dead giveaway,” he said. A texter's head will bob up and down, Vance said, as he sneaks a peek at his phone. “It's usually pretty easy to pull up alongside of them” and get a glimpse of what they are doing, he added.

A patrolling officer as a matter of course looks for inattentive driving, such as a swerve or wheels touching a lane stripe, according to former Providence Police Chief Richard T. Sullivan, who is now a traffic-safety consultant.

If a driver does not have both hands on the wheel and/or it appears that his gaze has left the road for at least two seconds, an officer has probable cause to make a stop, he said.

In the several years that Rhode Island has limited cell phone use by minors and school-bus drivers, the police have issued eight citations to minors and none to bus drivers, according to records of the Traffic Tribunal. There were two convictions.

Proponents of the texting ban say their aim is broader than merely catching someone and issuing a ticket that leads to punishment. They want public awareness that changes behavior.

The Department of Transportation already is laying out a publicity blitz on behalf of the texting ban, to be paid for by federal highway-safety money.

Jurisdictions that have sustained and heavily publicized enforcement, such as the District of Columbia, have had more success in modifying motorist behavior than others, according to Rader of the insurance institute.

As with seat belt requirements, said Vance of the Connecticut state police, it will take time for the government to win voluntary compliance by the public.

Explicitly exempt from the prospective law would be any on-duty public safety personnel, anyone trying to reach public-safety personnel or anyone whose vehicle has broken down in traffic. Implicitly exempt would be anyone using a voice-recognition device that allows a text message to be dictated rather than typed.

Manufacturers, responding to the danger posed by texting while driving, are working on dictation devices.

For some legislators, such as Kilmartin, the texting ban is a half-measure. What they really want is to ban the use of handheld cell phones while driving.

In 2008 Carcieri proposed such a ban, as part of a budget bill. He estimated that fines imposed for that violation might bring in revenue of $5 million. But legislators scoffed at the revenue estimate and pushed aside the idea.

Kilmartin said last week that he will renew in the next session of the General Assembly his effort to require the use of a hands-free device for anyone who wants to use a cell phone while driving. He first introduced legislation 10 years ago to ban cell phone use without a hands-free device after a motorist talking on a cell phone nearly ran into him as he worked a traffic detail.

The General Assembly passed his bill in 2001 but Governor Lincoln Almond vetoed it.

For More Information About Our Rhode Island Traffic Court Lawyers Visit Our Website at:

About the Author

Matthew Marin

Attorney Matthew T. Marin is a highly skilled criminal defense lawyer with an outstanding track record in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. With expertise in DUI/DWI, drug offenses, domestic violence, and white-collar crimes, he is dedicated to providing personalized and effective representation for his clients. A "Rising Star" by Super Lawyers and a member of the National College for DUI Defense and the National Trial Lawyers Top 100, Attorney Marin is committed to staying current with the latest legal developments and giving back to his community through pro bono work.


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