Drivers could pay more for distracted driving

Hannah Grover

FARMINGTON — Law enforcement officials say careless driving is a big problem with potentially devastating results, and a state lawmaker is hoping to discourage that activity.

A billboard warning drivers about distracted driving is pictured on Thursday near Farmington Lake.

Senate Bill 55, which increases the penalties for careless driving, reckless driving and texting while driving, passed the Senate on a 24-16 vote and is now being considered in the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee.

"Efforts to reduce distracted driving (are) really about tragedy prevention," Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe said in an emailed statement. "(Looking at your phone, looking at your radio, checking your GPS) takes just a couple of seconds, but the results of it are life changing."

Sen. Steve Neville, R-Farmingon, sponsored the bill. San Juan County resident Summer Jakino-Whistle helped draft the measure after her father was killed in a crash in Colorado and her mother was injured. The crash occurred when a woman who allegedly was adjusting her radio hit Jakino-Whistle's parents, who were on a motorcycle.

“Distracted driving can seriously hurt innocent people, so it should hurt the distracted driver more in the pocketbook. Maybe that will wake them up to paying more attention,” Neville said in a press release.

There is currently a $25 fine for careless driving, which is defined as the driver not giving full attention to the road. San Juan County Sheriff's Office Detective Lt. Kyle Lincoln and Sgt. Devon Dollar said that could involve anything from changing the radio station to texting. Senate Bill 55 would increase the fine to $100.

While Dollar and Lincoln support Senate Bill 55, they said it may not make a big difference. While careless driving is a common problem, there are relatively few citations issued for it.

"Most people see a cop car coming for miles," Lincoln said.

Between June 1 and Feb. 1, the sheriff's office issued 41 careless-driving citations and 24 texting-while-driving citations. In 2016, the Farmington Police Department issued 267 citations for distracted driving, according to an email from spokeswoman Georgette Allen. Allen said the citations were broken into three categories: careless driving, prohibited activities while driving and texting while driving. The majority of the citations — 173 — were issued for careless driving. Police also issued 81 citations for texting while driving and 13 for prohibited activities while driving.

Dollar said it is hard to catch people who are texting and driving unless the officer is in the right place at the right time.

"If they see you, you're not going to catch them," Dollar said.

Lincoln said the fines do not seem to make a big difference when it comes to some of the more common citations, such as driving without insurance, driving without registration or driving on a revoked or suspended driver's license. All three of those citations carry a $100 fine. Lincoln said it is not uncommon for an officer to issue those three citations in a single traffic stop. He said sometimes an officer will pull over someone who had received those citations a day earlier.

"The monetary value does not seem to affect it," he said.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.