According to police statistics, 60 drivers who have crashed in Conway since January 2008 were distracted by an electronic device, usually a cell phone. A new state law to be enacted on Thursday aims to cut down on this number by banning text messaging while driving.

"Obviously it’s a profound contributing factor toward accidents," Conway Police Department public information officer Sharen Carter said.

A report of an accident earlier this year at Highway 65 and Highway 64 is typical of text-related crashes, Carter said. The reporting officer stated in the report that "according to statements from (the driver) and other occupants of his vehicle, he was not paying attention to the roadway.

"Instead, (the driver) was text messaging on his cell phone," the report reads.

Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler said text messaging is a greater distraction than a verbal phone conversation "because one would possibly have to move the eyes off the highway or city street, which does pose a real danger even if it’s only for a few seconds."

Drivers under 18 years of age are prohibited from using cellular phones, and drivers between 19 and 21 may only use hands-free telecommunication devices. In the new law there are no age limits; for all ages, texting while driving is banned.

Another difference between the new law and cell phone laws already on the books is its enforcement. Whereas the age restrictions on teen drivers are enforceable as secondary offenses — an officer must have a separate reason for the traffic stop — the texting ban gives officers the authority to initiate an immediate traffic stop and cite a driver for the offense.

Conway Chief of Police A. J. Gary said texting while driving "is going to be a difficult infraction to observe," but his officers "will enforce it as they see it."

"It’s going to be difficult to see sometimes if somebody is sending a text message, especially if they have (the cell phone) down below the line of sight," Gary said. "We can look at the way somebody is driving; we can see if they’re looking ahead or if they’re looking down most of the time ... but the officer will have to see it to stop someone."

Gary added that, as the act of texting while driving has been added to the list of enforceable traffic violations, it can also be enforced after the fact if it is determined that the at-fault driver in an accident was texting at the time.

Though the new law’s title mentions only text messaging, the law also bans the use of electronic devices for "typing, text messaging, e-mailing, or accessing information on the Internet with a handheld wireless telephone." 

The law also allows for these otherwise-banned actions to be performed by a driver during an emergency or by "a person performing his or her official duties as a certified law enforcement officer, firefighter, ambulance driver or emergency medical technician."

(Staff writer Joe Lamb can be reached at 505-1238 or by E-mail at joe.lamb@thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit.)