3 On Your Side Investigates: Deadly Distractions - MSNewsNow.com - Jackson, MS

3 On Your Side Investigates: Deadly Distractions

Source: WLBT Source: WLBT
RIDGELAND, MS (Mississippi News Now) -

Texting while driving isn't just dangerous; it's deadly.

Recent studies say Mississippi leads the nation in crash deaths and cell phone usage.

But shouldn't those deaths be going down because texting and driving has been illegal here since 2015?

3 On Your Side tried to answer that question by looking at the effectiveness of this law through the eyes of Ridgeland police officer Wilson Wielgosz during a ride-along.

Within 30 minutes, Wielgosz already had someone stopped for what appeared to be distracted driving.

"While we were in the intersection, I noticed that you had your phone in your hand. What were we doing with it?" Wielgosz asked the driver.

"Oh, I was just holding it," the driver replied.

"Okay. We weren't looking at it or using it while we were on the road?" Wielgosz asked.

"No, sir. No, sir. I was just holding it," the driver said.

Wielgosz hears that often when he stops drivers he suspects weren't watching the road.

Sometimes he believes them.

Sometimes they give themselves away.

"Just had a big client today. Just wanted to make sure that I said all I needed to say [on the phone]," the driver said.

Seconds after the driver said she was just holding her phone, she admits she was talking on the phone while behind the wheel.

Mississippi's texting law says that's perfectly legal.

However, the distraction caused her to run a red light, which took place right in front of Wielgosz.

And if she hadn't done that, Wielgosz would have had no reason to legally stop her.

It's a constant battle for Mississippi law enforcement officers, considering they work in a state that led the nation in deadly crashes, according to a 2018 SafeWise report.

READ MORE: The Dangers and Costs of Distracted Driving in Your State

"I can't tell you how many times I've heard, 'Oh, I just took my eyes off the road for a second, or I dropped my phone and went to pick it up, and we had an accident,'" Wielgosz said.

WATCH: Distracted driver runs red light

You see, officers like Wielgosz have to sometimes work around current laws to be able to protect bad drivers from everybody else -- and sometimes themselves.

That's because of the state's texting and driving law, which took effect in 2015.

"It's so specific that it's basically not useful or helpful at all," Wielgosz said.

The law states only certain behavior is against the law: sending messages through text, email, or instant messaging; and posting to social media.

Everything else -- including GPS navigation, phone calls, and streaming music services -- is legal.

"'I was just looking at Google. I'm not from this area. I was looking at my maps.' And they're running red lights, they're making all kinds of traffic violations," Wielgosz said.

However, it's nearly impossible for officers to prove that the driver was actually doing something unlawful on their phone.

"You say, 'I saw you texting and I have to bring it to court.' I'd have to subpoena the phone records, and that -- it's getting to the point where it's more harm than it's worth and it's more timely to just get the citation out of the way than to actually do the enforcement," Wielgosz said.

In the first hour we tagged along with the officer, we saw more than twenty people driving distracted -- most looking at their phones.

However, because Mississippi's texting law is so weak, Wielgosz had to wait until their driving became a moving violation before he could stop them.

One woman stopped in her lane for nearly eight seconds, even though the light was green.

"Were we just in the wrong lane and we were just waiting, because you weren't in a turn lane?" Wielgosz asked after he stopped the woman.

She told him that she had turned to look at her child in the back seat, and didn't see the light had changed.

WATCH: Distracted driver ends up with careless driving ticket

"You were basically creating a traffic hazard," Wielgosz said.

He gave her a ticket for careless driving, since stopping in the middle of moving traffic could have caused a wreck.

While the woman wasn't on her phone in this case, Wielgosz said because it involved distracted driving, it's still an example of something they couldn't enforce until she broke another law.

Wielgosz said he needs to make sure what they're doing is a criminal offense so it impacts their driving record.

"Right now, it's just a civil penalty that's filed through justice court and there's nothing that actually goes on their record that shows if they're a first, second or third violator," Ridgeland Police Chief John Neal said.

Neal understands that all too well.

He hopes legislators will revise the law to make it more effective, like including a hands-free requirement some states like New York already have on the books.

How do we know the law isn't working?

"Since this law has been passed,  zero citations have been issued because we don't have the jurisdiction to issue those because it is returnable to justice court," Neal said.

Neal said the tickets can't be filed in municipal court and that means his officers have to go outside the city limits just to file the affidavits for the citations.

So what will it take? 

"We don't want to learn unless a tragedy happens," Wielgosz said.

Wielgosz has a point.

Look at the state's traffic laws regarding school buses and bikes, for example: the Legislature passed stricter regulations for both, but only after people lost their lives in wrecks that could have been avoided.

 "We don't want a bill that's in memory of somebody. We want to save some lives on the front end," Neal said.

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