Travel around Summerlin with an observant eye and you’ll soon discover that an alarming number of folks still don’t understand it’s illegal to text and use hand-held cellphones while driving. Or maybe they just don’t give a hoot.
The guy who suddenly cut in front of me on Anasazi Drive without signaling, forcing me to hit the brakes hard to avoid a collision, couldn’t care less that I honked my horn. He was too busy yakking away on his hand-held cellphone to take notice.
Only a few minutes later I was circling the roundabout heading onto Hualapai Way, just past Summerlin Hospital Medical Center. Another driver, who was in a texting mode, flew past the yield sign and into the roundabout, again forcing me to hit the brakes to avoid a collision.
“That was a mental lapse, which could well have caused an accident,” said Officer Jay Rivera, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police Department. “It’s almost impossible to be mentally alert to driving and at the same time use your brain to text or talk on the phone.”
It was those two incidents that precipitated my interview with the officer. He made it clear that the twin infractions have been violations of Nevada law for two months. Obviously, those who continue to drive merrily along while texting and gabbing on hand-held cellphones do not yet realize they’re breaking an existing law. That’s because their actions haven’t yet affected their wallets.
But come midnight Jan. 1, 2012, it will begin costing them. And make no mistake about it, the cost could pile up big-time, especially for habitual scofflaws.
According to the law, which became effective Oct. 1 after being enacted in the last legislative session, it is illegal in Nevada for anyone to text or talk into hand-held phones while driving. It is not illegal, however, for motorists to talk into any device that does not require the driver to hold it.
The Nevada Legislature, in its wisdom, built a buffer into the law —- a three-month grace period —- so the only thing police can do at present is issue verbal warnings to violators instead of citations. In effect, they’re told that texting and gabbing on hand-held phones is against the law, a law that has no clout —- yet.
That’s like telling drivers to simply go their merry way. It’s not even a slap on the wrist. As a result, the law hasn’t yet sunk in with many drivers who can’t seem to overcome their obsession with cellphones.
Of course, once the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, the grace period will end, and police citations will be issued to violators.
“Frankly, I don’t know what a few months of warning is going to accomplish when people take the attitude that they can still text and use cellphones as if the law doesn’t exist,” Rivera said.
He explained that once penalties for violators kick in, the cost can add up quickly.
“A first infraction will result in a $50 fine,” he said, “the second $100, the third $250, and right on up.”
Meanwhile, officers are doing the only thing they can until monetary penalties take effect, and that is stopping drivers who they see texting or talking on hand-held phones and warning them of the eventual consequences. Unfortunately, what they’re seeing gives the impression it’s still business as usual with many motorists, some of whom have displayed a smug attitude about the law, perhaps overly confident that nothing will disrupt their means of communication, irrespective of the illegality.
“We continue to see lots of people texting and still talking on hand-held cellphones while driving,” said Rivera. “I recently pulled over a driver who had food in one hand and a cellphone in the other.”
“Sometimes it’s hard to just warn people, especially when they take the attitude that, ‘Oh, you can’t give me a ticket.’ “
Maybe that’s where the smugness comes in.
“They know that for the time being, we can only issue generic warnings,” Rivera said.
Herb Jaffe was an op-ed columnist and investigative reporter for most of his 39 years at the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. His newest novel, “All For Nothing,” is now available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.