The disheveled man stood at the busy intersection holding a handwritten cardboard sign that many drivers didn't read. And it cost them plenty.
The scribbled sign read: "I am not homeless. I am a Montgomery County Police Officer looking for cell phone texting violations."
It was a trap. Montgomery County Police Sgt. Phillip Chapin and about eight other officers issued a total of 56 tickets county-wide in one recent day, including 31 tickets and 9 warnings to people caught using their phones without hands-free devices.
Although automobile drivers are often the target of mobile phone-use crackdowns, truckers are in the cross hairs, too.
For example, in the Arlington-Grand Prairie, Texas Metroplex area Officer Greg Parker of the Grand Prairie Police Department and colleagues borrowed a full-sized motor coach from a local dealer so they could cruise I-20. "We were focusing on all violations, aggressive drivers, seatbelts and illegal phone use." Texas does not prohibit vehicle phone use of any type – handheld or hands-free – but some local jurisdictions, like Arlington and Grand Prairie do.
Parker said that during a three-hour run, they spotted one trucker who was illegally using a handheld phone – talking, not texting – but most violations were from four-wheelers. Parker, who is also vice chair for Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance's Operation Safe Driver week committee, noted that the high vantage point of the motor coach allowed them to see drivers who had no idea that they were being watched by police.
"We would radio ahead and other officers would make the stop. During the course of our enforcement activity we found the majority of truck drivers were doing exactly what they should be doing - except wear their seatbelts. Most truckers are taking advantage of hands-free devices."
(This week, CVSA, as part of its Operation Safe Driver program, is expected to release its statistics showing a breakdown of drivers – commercial and cars –who were stopped and ticketed for talking on a phone, texting or other unsafe driving behavior, according to Acting Executive Director Collin Mooney.)
Law enforcement is becoming more clever in catching phone violators, says Parker. "When most drivers see marked car they straighten up and driver right. That's why we used the motor coach. Violations are difficult to see. If they're texting, they can put the phone down quickly when they see a marked police car."
Parker and others note that catching distracted motorists helps save truckers' lives, too, because the preponderance of evidence suggests that car drivers are principally at fault in about 71 percent of fatal car-truck crashes, according to DOT's Large Truck Crash Causation Study which was conducted from April 2001 through December 2003.
Here are some other creative schemes law enforcement is using to catch truckers and motorists:
- In Oklahoma, the Highway Patrol has teamed up with local police and drove a school bus along US 69/75, which has a history of crashes. The high vantage point and 'camouflage' allowed them to catch eight drivers in 20 minutes including one trucker.
- Several states, including Massachusetts are catching illegal phoners from overpass perches. However, recently, a Boston TV station stationed reporters on overpasses over routes 128 and I-93 and witnessed many trucks violating federal rules.
- In Marietta, Georgia, police dressed as road crews sneak a look into slow moving vehicles seeking violators.
- In a twist, Tennessee Highway Patrol officers are driving 18-wheelers to get a better view of four-wheeler texters. Almost 100 officers also have CDLs which allow them to drive the trucks. They report catching several truckers, too, who are on the same eye level as them.
Parker said that some speed enforcement devices like laser guns also have a visual magnification feature on them so police can actually see inside vehicles. Some can see the 'text bubbles' to prove that drivers were texting.
The U.S. Department of Transportation reminds CMV drivers what constitutes the prohibited use of hand-held mobile phones:
- Using at least one hand to hold a mobile phone to make a call;
- Dialing a mobile phone by pressing more than a single button; or
- Reaching for a mobile phone in a manner that requires a driver to maneuver so that he or she is no longer in a seated driving position, restrained by a seat belt.