The Minnesota State Patrol will be going to some unusual lengths Thursday to ticket drivers for using their cellphones.
As part of statewide campaign to draw attention to the dangers of distracted driving, troopers in the metro area will be riding on school buses and in semitrailer trucks looking for motorists whose shoulders are hunched and whose fingers appear to be scrolling or typing, two telltale signs of drivers using their phones illegally.
Minneapolis police and officers from more than 400 agencies statewide also will be on the lookout during Thursday's crackdown, which coincides with National Distracted Driving Awareness Month.
"Nobody's last words should be LOL or OMG," said Donna Berger of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Office of Traffic Safety.
The patrol handed out 1,728 citations to drivers for texting last year, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. But to do so, officers must be able see a motorist engaged in that activity. That's why officers will be on buses and trucks: They can get a better look from a raised vantage point, said Sgt. Paul Davis of the State Patrol.
"They [drivers] hide it because they are not supposed to be doing that," Davis said. "This gives us a different perspective to see what is going on inside that car."
Drivers caught texting will be stopped by officers working with those in the buses and trucks.
Drivers caught in the act
On Wednesday, Davis took members of the media on a preview bus ride on I-394 and Hwy. 55. In just a few minutes, cameras caught drivers texting, allegedly reading e-mail or fiddling with other electronic devices or the radio.
Composing or reading e-mails is illegal. It is not illegal to answer a phone or talk on the phone but it is highly discouraged by police.
A recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that nearly 50 percent of drivers answer their phones while driving, 25 percent make calls while behind the wheel and 14 percent compose or read text messages or e-mails. Among teen drivers, that figure jumps to 40 percent.
A study out of the University of Utah said drivers who are on the phone have reduced reaction times, much like alcohol-impaired drivers.
Distracted driving, defined as any behavior that takes a drivers' focus off the road, isn't just limited to cellphone use. A recent study done in cooperation with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that the leading cause of driver distraction is daydreaming. The survey also found eating, smoking, reaching for navigational devices and interacting with pets or other passengers were leading distractions.
Distracted driving prompts crashes that cause nine deaths and 1,060 injuries each day in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Your life is at stake," Davis said. "It only takes a lapse in judgment and we have a crash."