(USATODAY.com) - Statewide texting-while-driving bans have become an increasingly popular tool against the deadly practice since Washington state introduced the first one in 2007; 39 states and the District of Columbia now have such bans.
But a driver stands little chance of getting ticketed for texting by state police in most of the nation, with some state agencies averaging fewer than one citation per day, according to a USA TODAY survey of state police agencies.
Tennessee state troopers began tracking texting-while-driving citations on Jan. 1, 2010, says spokesman Kevin Crawford. Through April 25, they had cited 946 drivers - an average of about 24 per month.
Since the Louisiana ban on texting while driving was enacted on July 1, 2008, the Louisiana State Police have written 1,059 citations, says Capt. Doug Cain. That's an average of 18 per month.
In North Dakota, where the law was enacted Aug. 1, 2011, the Highway Patrol has issued 117 citations - about six per month.
These totals include only those citations issued by state police or troopers, and don't count tickets by city and county police agencies. In some states, like Wyoming, Alabama and Rhode Island, the vast majority of texting citations are written by state police; in other states, like Oregon, local police write more tickets.
"No one seems to really know (how often police are writing texting citations)," says Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, which is in the middle of a major study to determine how many texting citations are issued annually. "I think there's a general perception that there isn't (much enforcement)."
In some cases, even the police don't know how frequently texting laws are enforced: State police in Arkansas, Connecticut, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia say they don't track texting-while-driving citations.
"The Arkansas State Police does not have a means to track the number of violator citations for this particular charge," spokesman Bill Sadler says.
Numerous surveys have found that people view texting while driving as dangerous, but still do it. The AAA Foundation's Traffic Safety Culture Index for 2012, a survey of 3,896 people of driving age, found that 81% viewed texting while driving as "a very serious threat to safety." But 35% had read a text and 27%had sent one while driving within the previous month.
Research shows that texting while driving creates a crash risk 23 times greater than driving without distraction. In 2011, the most recent year available, 3,331 people were killed and 387,000 injured in distracted-driving crashes. Those stats don't break out texting accidents, but texting while driving is considered the deadliest form of distracted driving because it diverts a driver's eyes, hands and mind.
Good enforcement of texting laws is critical in curbing the practice among young drivers, who fear a ticket more than they fear an injury or death, says Sandy Spavone, executive director of National Organizations for Youth Safety, a collaboration of over 70 groups.
But many teens don't view getting ticketed for texting while driving as a real possibility. "I don't know anyone that's ever gotten pulled over for texting while driving," says Kari Wissel, 18, of Mount Summit, Ind. "If it's really enforced and you know the cops could pull you over, you're not going to do it as much."
In the first year of Pennsylvania's texting-while-driving ban, the state police issued 340 citations - among 1,302 written statewide. In most states, the number of citations grows each year after a law is enacted.
"The totals can sometimes be misleading," says Cain, explaining that troopers sometimes cite texting drivers for some other offense, such as crossing the center line or speeding. "The number of citations may not be indicative of the actual traffic stops for texting while driving."
As texting laws began to proliferate during the late '00s, a frequent complaint from police was that they were difficult to enforce. "What the law has done is made people move the phone from the steering wheel down into their lap," says Sgt. Mike Baker of the Colorado State Patrol. "They're doing more to try to conceal it now that it's illegal."
Justin McNaull, director of state relations for auto club AAA and a former Arlington, Va., police officer, says that texting-while-driving laws are still evolving. "Many state laws are less than five years old," he says. "It takes time for police to develop and disseminate effective enforcement practices.
He says it's much easier for police to enforce laws governing speeding or seat belt use than texting. "You're going from watching a 3,000-pound vehicle (that is) speeding, to texting, where you're looking at a driver with a smartphone that weighs a couple of ounces," McNaull says. "Ultimately, the goal of traffic laws and traffic enforcement isn't to write a certain number of tickets. It's to change behavior. It's to discourage people from engaging in dangerous behavior."