Texting while driving tickets may increase in Harrison County

Tickets for texting while driving may start to rise in Harrison County.

Since Troy Peterson became sheriff in January, deputies have written a total of 22 tickets -- 13 citations filed in Justice Court and nine courtesy citations.

More tickets can be expected after July 1, when the penalty rises from $25 to $100, Peterson said.

The law prohibits drivers from sending or receiving text messages, emails or social media posts, but it allows all drivers but school bus drivers to send and receive phone calls.

The anti-texting law, effective last July, appears to be open to interpretation. Some police officials say it's a civil law, not enforceable by police.

Peterson sees it differently.

The law refers to having one hand on a cellphone while sending or receiving a message, Peterson said.

But he agrees that the law "puts the burden of proof on law enforcement."

It also can be time-consuming and costly.

So a driver denies sending a text, he or she can refuse to show an officer the phone. To take it to court, officers must subpoena cellphone records, which can take 30 days, Peterson said.

The tickets are handled in Justice Court. Police departments typically handle their misdemeanor cases in Municipal Court.

Peterson said the law raises some issues.

"A lot of people have GPS on their phone and they use it to find where they're going," he said. "What's going to happen is cellphone companies are going to start charging people a lot of money to put hands-free devices in their vehicles. Your older vehicles, older than 2014 and 2015, don't have that bluetooth capability."

Peterson said he agrees with police officials who say the law needs to be tweaked.

April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, but area officials agree that distracted driving is dangerous driving.

Gulfport police are not writing the texting tickets, police Sgt. Damon McDaniel said.

"If we can write a ticket for some other reason that involves careless driving, we write a careless driving ticket," he said. "But we can only enforce criminal laws."

Swerving or crossing the center line are examples of careless driving.

Public safety officials often give this example of what happens when a person looks down at a text message: In the time it takes to read a text, about 4.6 seconds, a car travelling at 55 mph can travel the length of a football field.

Texting while driving is generally considered distracted driving.

In 2013, the latest year numbers are available, 3,154 people were killed nationwide by distracted drivers and about 424,000 were injured, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Other statistics show Mississippi has one of the nation's highest rates of teen deaths in crashes. In 2014, crashes around the state claimed 73 teens.

Biloxi Police Chief John Miller has said the anti-texting law would have been more effective if it had banned the use of hand-held cellphones while driving while allowing drivers to use hands-free devices.

A law that applies to young, inexperienced drivers carries stiffer penalties than the law passed last year.

Teens with a driving permit or an intermediate license found texting while driving face a fine of up to $500, or up to $1,000 if an accident occurred.