Texting while driving ban to begin July 1 in New Mexico

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Come July 1, sending or viewing text messages on a handheld device while driving will be illegal in New Mexico.

Clara Garcia-News-Bulletin photo: Texting while driving will soon be illegal in the state of New Mexico. Local law enforcement officials say the practice of texting while driving is not only dangerous to the driver, but to other motorists on the road.

While drivers encounter innumerable distractions on the road, texting while driving has proved to be one of the most dangerous because it requires visual, manual and cognitive attention from the driver.

It’s not just teens and young adults who should be worried about the new ban.

“We see (texting while driving) across all age groups, really,” said Los Lunas Police Chief Naithan Gurule. “Everyone has cell phones these days. It’s hard to pinpoint any one group.”

The new law states that “a person may not manually compose or transmit messages of any kind while driving except to contact emergency or medical assistance.” The new law also prohibits viewing or reading incoming messages.

Voice-operated and hands-free devices may still be used within reason. Navigations systems, GPS and devices that are built into vehicles are still safe to use, as long as those devices don’t require the use of the driver’s hands other than to power on or initiate a feature.

But what about the other things drivers use phones for?

When asked about his reaction to the ban, Los Chavez resident William Krause, 19, said “Texting while driving is dumb, but sometimes I look for a new song on my phone while driving.”

Anything that has to be done manually, including browsing music, viewing or composing status updates, taking pictures and checking email are now considered illicit behaviors while driving.

“The nation-wide emphasis is don’t drive while distracted,” said Bosque Farms Police Chief Greg Jones.

According to www.distraction.gov, an estimated 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or handheld electronics at any given moment of the day. Drivers who are calling, texting or even simply reaching for a mobile device are three times more likely to be involved in an accident.

Texting while at temporary stops in traffic jams, at red lights and stop signs will be cause for citation under the new statute. On the first violation, a person found guilty of texting while driving will be fined $25. Any violation after that will merit a $50 fine.

When asked about whether the ban will be aggressively enforced as of July 1, Belen Police Chief Dan Robb said that this issue has been well publicized and long needed. He said his department is willing to do anything to make the community safer.

“I’m very excited that the Legislature and state government moved forward with this law,” Robb said. “It will make New Mexico a safer place to drive and a safer place to be.”

While Annette Saiz, 48, agrees that texting while driving is concerning, she still has questions about the law’s practicality.

“I don’t text and drive, but I do dial on my phone while driving,” Saiz said. “I want to know how (police officers) know if you’re texting or dialing a number.”

Signs of drivers distracted by cell phones are like any other impairment, law enforcement officials say. Erratic driving and failing to obey traffic signs and signals are all behaviors officers look for in relation to any kind of distracted driving.

However, in order to be cited under the new law, an officer has to actually see the driver touching the screen or buttons on a mobile device to justify a citation.

Seeing drivers manually text is common enough, but as to how many citations will actually be handed out is uncertain.

“With any change in law, we provide the statute to the deputies and they enforce them at their own discretion,” said Valencia County Sheriff Louis Burkhard.

As for what drivers can do to avoid being cited Robb, Gurule, Jones and Burkhard all agree that the best thing is to follow the law by limiting any and all distractions while driving. Drivers will have to think back to their days in driver’s education courses and keep both hands on the wheel.

For the safety of everyone on the road, activities such as calling, emailing, texting and social networking will just have to wait.