Tex­ting while driv­ing fight gets cre­ative

Po­lice forced to adapt to ad­dress wide­spread dan­ger

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Denise Lavoie

WEST BRIDGE­WA­TER, Mass. — State troop­ers in Chat­tanooga, Tenn., have been known to pa­trol in a trac­tor-trailer so they can sit up high and spot driv­ers tex­ting be­hind the wheel.

In Bethesda, Md., a po­lice of­fi­cer dis­guised him­self as a home­less man, stood near a busy in­ter­sec­tion and ra­dioed ahead to of­fi­cers down the road about tex­ting driv­ers. In two hours last Oc­to­ber, po­lice gave out 56 tick­ets.

And in West Bridge­wa­ter, Mass., south of Bos­ton, an of­fi­cer reg­u­larly tools around town on his bi­cy­cle, ped­als up to driv­ers at stop­lights and hands them $105 tick­ets.

Tex­ting while driv­ing in the U.S. is not just a dan­ger­ous habit but also an in­furi- Mas­sachusetts Of­fi­cer Matthew Mon­teiro speaks about us­ing cell­phones while driv­ing. at­ingly wide­spread one, prac­ticed both brazenly and sur­rep­ti­tiously by so many mo­torists that po­lice are be­ing forced to get cre­ative — and still can’t seem to make much head­way.

“It’s ev­ery­one: kids, older peo­ple — ev­ery­one,’ ” said West Bridge­wa­ter Of­fi­cer Matthew Mon­teiro.

The Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion es­ti­mates nearly 3,500 peo­ple were killed in crashes in­volv­ing dis­tracted driv­ers in the main­land U.S. and Puerto Rico in 2015, up from al­most 3,200 in 2014. The num­ber of deaths in which cell­phones were the dis­trac­tion rose from 406 in 2014 to 476 in 2015.

But many safety ad­vo­cates say crashes in­volv­ing cell­phones are vastly un­der­re­ported be­cause po­lice are forced to rely on what they are told by driv­ers, many of whom aren’t go­ing to ad­mit they were us­ing their phones.

“You don’t have a Breath­a­lyzer or a blood test to see if they are us­ing their phones,” said Deb­o­rah Hers­man, pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Na­tional Safety Coun­cil and for­mer chair­woman of the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board. “Cer­tainly, law en­force­ment can ask peo­ple, ‘Can I see your phone?’ but peo­ple can refuse, so they then have to get a search war­rant.”

Forty-six states have laws against tex­ting while driv­ing that typ­i­cally also ban send­ing or read­ing email, us­ing apps or en­gag­ing in other in­ter­net ac­tiv­ity. Four­teen states bar driv­ers from us­ing hand-held cell­phones for any ac­tiv­ity, in­clud­ing talk­ing.

While ef­forts to dis­cour­age tex­ting have in­creased in re­cent years, the con­sen­sus among po­lice, safety ad­vo­cates and driv­ers is that the prob­lem is only get­ting worse.

In New York, tex­ting tick­ets soared from about 9,000 in 2011 to nearly 85,000 in 2015. In Mas­sachusetts, they rock­eted from about 1,100 to a lit­tle over 6,100 over the same pe­riod. In Cal­i­for­nia, the num­ber of peo­ple found guilty of tex­ting while driv­ing climbed from un­der 3,000 in 2009 to over 31,000 in 2015. Fines for first of­fenses range from $20 to $500.

En­force­ment is dif­fi­cult in part be­cause it’s hard to prove tex­ting vi­o­la­tions in states that al­low driv­ers to talk on hand-held cell­phones.

Of­fi­cer Mon­teiro can’t pedal his bike fast enough to get to all the driv­ers he sees tex­ting or us­ing their phones while on the road.

One day, he caught a teen play­ing “Poke­mon Go” on his phone while driv­ing. An­other time, he caught a wo­man watch­ing YouTube videos.

Both got slapped with $105 tick­ets.

STEVEN SENNE/AP

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