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Driving While Intexticated

New state law against texting and driving goes into effect; joins laws on driving while distracted.

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Texting while driving became illegal in Tennessee on July 1st, but local law enforcement can't officially issue citations under the law just yet.

Both the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission must pass ordinances that mirror the state law before Memphis police officers and Shelby County sheriff's deputies can write tickets aimed specifically at texting while driving. But that doesn't mean tech-savvy drivers are off the hook.

"We already have several city ordinances that we use for things like texting," said Major Ray Hopkins, executive officer of traffic with the Memphis Police Department. "There are ordinances in place that deal with drivers being required to pay full attention when driving and failure to maintain safe lookout."

Shelby County sheriff spokesperson Steve Shular said the county has a similar ordinance that punishes drivers for "failure to devote full attention" to the road.

However, Tennessee Highway Patrol officers have begun enforcing the state prohibition against texting and driving. The misdemeanor citation carries a $50 fine, but citations don't go on driving records.

"We're looking for motorists who are clearly texting or reading a text message," said Mike Browning, a spokesperson for the state Department of Safety. "Motorists should be aware that texting while driving is a dangerous behavior that can result in an injury crash or even death."

Memphis driver Monica Carney said the new law won't stop her. She sends her friends messages when she can use cruise control but tries to avoid the practice during rush hour.

"I've never wrecked or rear-ended anyone while texting, and until someone has wrecked, I don't think they should be punished," Carney said.

Shular said officers occasionally find evidence that drivers were texting at the time of the accident: "Officers will find cell phones in the floorboard of a vehicle after a crash. The screen shows mid-sentence, as if the person was texting before their wreck."

Whether they're texting, fiddling with iPods, or the radio dial, Hopkins said too many Memphis drivers don't pay attention to the road.

"People have become too casual with driving. It requires all of your attention," Hopkins said. "When you're mentally distracted, it's just like being under the influence of alcohol or intoxicants."

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