Drive through Colorado now and there are electronic sign boards everywhere threatening that the state’s new texting law fines have increased to $300.
The trouble is that if you actually read the law — specifically one section — it flat-out condones texting and driving under a number of conditions.
The text of Senate Bill 17-027 is fairly clear in section 6b, suggesting that as long as drivers are texting in a manner that isn’t “careless and imprudent,” then you’re more than welcome to answer that Facebook message or add songs to your Spotify playlist.
According to the Denver Post, prior to the law’s update, any manual data entry was prohibited. “The simple fact is that if you are texting while driving but not being careless, it’s no longer illegal,” Tim Lane at the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council told the Post.
States across the country are enacting stronger laws regarding distracted driving. The Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Transportation blamed texting for a spike in deaths on Colorado’s highways in 2016, calling the practice an “epidemic.”
“We’ve kind of seen the limit of taking dangerous intersections out and putting in grade-separated crossings or adding clear zones,” Colorado Department of Transportation executive director Shailen Bhatt, said in 2016. “We can engineer the system as well as we can. But the behavioral stuff is not something that we can move the needle on drastically, except for our education programs.”
Yet, when this current law passed, it stepped away from making the practice completely illegal. The officials who pushed for the weaker standard suggest that the increase in fines is enough to keep drivers from texting while actually driving, yet allows a driver to text or check a map while sitting at a stop light, which was illegal in Colorado.
“The focus of the law isn’t for people who are stopped at stop lights or pulled over on the road texting,” said Mike Phibbs, the legislative chair for the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police. “I think it’s actually helped clarify the issue and targets what’s really causing the problem.”
The problem for police and the courts is that the law kicks the door wide open for legal challenges. Instead of a black and white standard — you were either looking at your phone or you weren’t — the update introduces infinite shades of gray. Is it “careless and imprudent” to drive at five miles an hour versus 15, for example?
According to the Post, the weakened language was the product of legislative deal-making between senators:
“State Sen. Lois Court, D-Denver, sponsored a bill to increase the penalty to $500, but Republicans in the GOP-led chamber initially balked.
To win passage, Court needed support from Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, who opposed the original texting-while-driving bill because it went too far. Hill, who is running for Congress, agreed to support the measure if it softened the language about enforcement.
If you are stuck in traffic, he said, it shouldn’t be a crime to send a text message to a spouse that you are running late. But if you’re driving carelessly, Hill continued, “you’re putting everyone else in danger and you pay the price.”
In 46 other states, any texting while the car is in traffic — while it’s moving or not — is illegal. Some states — Washington, for example — have banned drivers from holding electronic devices while in traffic. Only Montana and Arizona have weaker texting standards, with no laws regarding texting and driving whatsoever. Missouri has a texting ban for drivers 21 and under.
For more information on the texting laws in all 50 states, and specifics on the law’s revision in Colorado, visit the Denver Post.