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Seven caught texting while driving since Mitchell ban started

Since Mitchell’s texting-while-driving ban went into effect in May, seven people have been cited or warned.

“It’s tough out there,” said Maj. Leon Baier, assistant police chief for the Mitchell Police Division. “I knew it was going on, but I didn’t think it was a problem.”

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Baier said despite only two citations and five warnings being issued so far, he sees many more people violating the law.

“I see a lot of violations when I’m in an unmarked car or in personal vehicles,” he said.

It’s likely people who are texting and driving follow the law better — or at least put down their phones — when they see uniformed officers driving in marked police vehicles. To combat that, Baier said the division has dispatched officers in unmarked police vehicles to watch for texting- while-driving violations around the city, with a marked cruiser a block or two away to catch violators.

“We’ve gotten a couple stops off that,” Baier said.

The Mitchell City Council approved the ban in April. The first ticket was issued June 28, about a month after the ban went into effect. It is a primary offense, meaning an officer can pull over a driver who is believed to be texting while driving, even if no other violation is suspected to have occurred. The fine is $120 if someone is cited.

Mitchell is one of at least seven South Dakota cities to pass a texting-while-driving ban. The others are Aberdeen, Brookings, Huron, Sioux Falls, Vermillion and Watertown. Attempts to pass a statewide ban have failed in the Legislature.

Baier said the oldest offender so far was 55 years old and the youngest was 17. The average age of the city’s texting-while-driving violators is 30.

Baier added that there have probably been more stops for texting while driving than the seven issued citations or warnings.

“If an officer gave a verbal warning, there’s no way to track that,” he said. “It could have been texting while driving, or he didn’t feel he had enough probable cause to write a ticket. That’s where the verbal would have come in.”