Michigan police go slow writing tickets for new hands-free driving law
- Michigan’s new distracted driving law took effect June 30
- Some police officers across the state are issuing warnings rather than tickets
- Departments are expected to ramp up enforcement with time when the new law becomes more familiar to drivers
Police departments acknowledge they haven’t been in a hurry to write tickets for hands-free distracted driving since the expanded law went into effect on June 30
As of Friday, the Grand Rapids Police Department had issued one ticket since that ban went into effect for using a cell phone while driving except for emergencies.
Michigan already had a texting-and-driving ban in place, but the charge was expanded to reflect the advancing technology of smartphones in the past decade such as video streaming and GPS.
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“For a case like this, where it’s a new law and some people might be ignorant of the new law, there has been a lot of education going on,” said Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Winstrom.
“We really offer our officers a lot of discretion. They are required by policy to take the totality of the circumstances into account when they are using their discretion,”
Grand Rapids police briefed officers on the law after it went into effect and advised them to first offer warnings, Winstrom said. Statewide, police aren’t yet tracking offenses, but many are following Grand Rapids’ approach, said Ron Wiles, deputy director for the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.
Most agencies, “are providing a brief period to make sure people are aware of the law and get them to follow the law,” he said.
Taking the opposite approach is Detroit, which has written 48 citations for holding a mobile device while driving and six for reading, typing or sending a text while driving. Tickets start at $100 and/or 16 hours of community service and escalate to $200 and 24 hours for second-time offenders.
“Driving is a privilege not a right, so we have to abide by the traffic laws set by the state and the city,” said Lt. Royd Coleman of the city's traffic enforcement unit.
The city’s traffic enforcement unit has not issued any distracted driving citations, but other units within the Police Department have begun enforcing the new law.
“Sometimes, it’s not all about ticket writing, it's about educating,” Coleman said. “So if that changes a person's behavior, we’d rather do that.”
The new law prohibits drivers from using their phone to send or receive a phone call or text message, view, record, or send a video and read, or post to a social networking site. Michigan drivers are not allowed to hold their cell phone even at a red light or a stop light.
Phone usage is only allowed for emergencies, reporting a crime or activating hands-free features. Emergency workers like police officers and firefighters who use technology for work are exempt from enforcement of the law.
The law comes amid an increase in traffic deaths that experts blame on distracted and drunk driving. In 2022, fatalities in Michigan rose to 1,133, up from 985 in 2019, according to TRIP, a national research nonprofit.
In 2022, the state generated about $129 million in revenue from traffic stops.
Fines for state traffic violations vary, but revenues from them fund everything from municipalities and courts to libraries and state departments.
“It's up to [the officer] to decide if they want to give a verbal warning and attempt to educate the motorist or issue a citation,” said Lt. Rene Gonzales, public information officer for the Michigan State Police. “Either way they’re in the right whether they give a verbal warning or a citation for the violation.”
Officers take into account drivers’ record, their attitude and how receptive they are to the information before determining if they will issue a warning or a citation, he said.
Officers can also use discretion to issue a citation for careless, reckless or distracted driving, all of which have different penalties.
“If we stop someone for holding their phone in their hand and they’re all over the road, maybe they almost swiped a few cars or they ran a red light … it can be constituted as careless driving,” Gonzales said.
Careless driving is a misdemeanor punishable by $500 fines, 93 days in jail and two points on licenses, while reckless driving — causing a serious injury to another person— is a felony punishable by up to $5,000, five years in prison and three points.
Under the new law one point is given after the second distracted driving offense and two points for following offenses.
“The law is simple, you cannot have your phone in your hand while you’re in your vehicle driving and that includes being at a stoplight or stop sign, you cannot have your phone in your hand,” Gonzales said.
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