I-Team: Do RI's driving distraction laws go far enough?

Rhode Island State Trooper William Reilly often sees drivers looking down at their cell phones when their eyes should be on the road.

Some are even driving like they're intoxicated.

"Swaying within their lanes, slowing way down because they're driving their attention between their phone and driving," Reilly said.

Since Rhode Island's ban on texting and driving took effect in 2009, just under 1,000 tickets have been issued statewide.

About one-quarter of those were dismissed, but more than 700 drivers had to pay at least $85.

But NBC 10 learned just seeing a driver fiddling with a phone isn't necessarily enough to write a ticket.

While texting and driving is illegal in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts, using your cell phone to make calls isn't.

But that habit that can sometimes take your eyes off the road just as long as texting.

Take your eyes off the road for just 4 to 6 seconds and, at highway speeds, suddenly you've traveled the distance of a football field essentially blindfolded.

That's why 14 states and the District of Columbia have hands-free cell phone laws for all drivers. That means it's illegal to talk on your phone while driving, unless you have an approved hands-free device installed.

"That's something that maybe we should consider moving forward," said Maj. David Tikoian of the Rhode Island State Police.

Tikoian said state police would support a move towards a hands-free law in the state, similar to the one in Connecticut.

Sometimes, it's tough for officers to tell exactly what drivers are doing on their phones with just a few seconds of observation.

"That's the challenge for law enforcement. Is somebody dialing the phone? Are they texting? Are they sending an email?" Tikoian said.

NBC 10 witnessed it firsthand during a ride along with Reilly. He noticed a black pick-up truck swerving and slowing down on Interstate 95 in Pawtucket.

"You could see he was holding his phone in his hand and looking down at this phone, and he was going so slow," Reilly said.

When Reilly questioned the driver, the man said he was making a call and not texting.

"It looked like he was scrolling through to find a number to call, which can be just as dangerous," Reilly said.

Rhode Island's texting ban did get a boost in 2012 when legislators beefed up penalties.

On top of paying fines, 72 drivers also lost their licenses for at least 30 days.