The woman in a blue Isuzu Trooper was so busy composing a text message as she waited at a traffic light Wednesday morning that she didn’t see that a squad car rolled up beside her.
By the time she did and quickly put her phone down, it was too late. Burnsville police officer Chris Walswick had already seen her holding her phone, using two thumbs to tap out a message.
“She has never had a ticket,” Walswick said as he ran a driver’s license check. “That’s going to change today.”
Walswick issued her a citation that carries a $50 fine for the first offense and $275 for subsequent violations. It was an easy stop, with the driver committing the offense in plain view and confessing to her misdeed.
But more often, it takes a sharper eye to nab drivers who illegally use a phone or electronic device to read or compose an e-mail or text message or access the internet while behind the wheel.
“People are getting smarter, and they don’t text up here any more,” said Walswick, noting that it was once common for drivers to hold the phone against the steering wheel where observant officers could see what they were doing. “Now they are texting in their lap, sometimes without looking at the screen, and that makes it virtually impossible to verify that is what they are doing.”
As texting drivers get more adept at hiding their crime, officers, too, are ramping up their game to catch them. In Minnesota, law enforcement officers from 300 agencies are laser-focused at looking for distracted drivers this week and next as part of April’s National Distracted Driving Awareness Month. They are out issuing citations and stern warnings in hopes of curbing the dangerous practice that now ranks as the fourth-leading cause of crashes causing serious injuries or death, trailing only speeding, seat belt use and drunken driving.
Walswick said he zeros in on body language for starters: Drivers with their eyes and heads down, driving at erratic speeds and drifting between the fog line and skip stripe are telltale signs. At red lights, if suspicions are high and the situation is safe, the 16-year veteran gets out of his squad and looks in windows to catch texting drivers in the act.
The keen-eyed Walswick didn’t resort to that tactic Wednesday when he was out as part of the distracted driving enforcement effort. But as he drove west on County Road 42 near Pennock Avenue, he spotted an eastbound motorist he believed was texting. He jumped the concrete median, turned back east and made a traffic stop.
“I saw the top of the phone and a motion believed to be texting,” said Walswick, who issued the driver a warning because he didn’t get a clear view of the driver’s behavior. “It’s really about being observant of people’s mannerisms.”
Drivers reading books behind the wheel
Across the country fines for texting and driving can run as low as $25 in places like South Carolina to as high as $750 in Utah. Minnesota is in the middle. A bill that would have banned the use of hand-held phones was introduced at the Legislature this year but has stalled in committee and is unlikely to pass.
Nearly 30 percent of Minnesota drivers were found to be distracted when behind the wheel according to the most recent Distracted Driving Survey done in 2015 by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Office of Traffic Safety. Based on what he’s seen, State Trooper Tyler Uthe said that number is likely way too low.
During his four years on the force, Uthe has handed out his share of tickets to distracted drivers for doing everything from using their phones to applying makeup to doing crossword puzzles and reading books. He said he looks to see if a driver’s hands are anywhere other than on the wheel or if one is manipulating something. At night, since phones illuminate the inside of a vehicle, Uthe said he can see conversation bubbles that appear on a screen, giving him evidence that a driver is likely engaged in texting, FaceTime or other social media.
“It’s alarming how many people are driving distracted,” Uthe said after writing a ticket to a driver reading messages on his phone while stopped at a traffic signal Monday at Hwy. 55 and Penn Avenue in Minneapolis.
Last year, police in Minnesota handed out nearly 6,000 tickets to distracted drivers, up from 1,707 just five years ago. But that was not enough to prevent thousands of crashes attributed to distracted driving that killed 74 people and injured 7,666 others.
“They know things can happen but don’t think they will be the one caught in the crash,” Uthe said. “In rush hour, they justify it due to lower speeds and say, ‘I will have time to react.’ Lots can happen in a short period of time.”
Just two weeks ago a pickup crossed the centerline and crashed into a church van on a rural Texas highway killing 13 people. The driver admitted he was texting at the time of the crash.
Sgt. Matt Schuster of the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office says “there is no easy answer” to the uphill battle of getting drivers to pay attention. Two weeks ago, his office took a new approach to communicate with motorists during a distracted driving blitz. Over a six-hour period when police stopped 128 drivers and issued 47 citations, deputies also handed out Cell Slips, sleeves lined with a fabric that blocks radio frequencies from reaching phones placed inside, meaning phones won’t ring or ping.
The effort was meant to be a tangible reminder to put down the phone, Schuster said.
Walswick worked an overtime shift to take part in Wednesday’s saturation in the south metro. He said if safety messages broadcast through traditional and social media don’t get drivers’ attention that squad cars and flashing lights will.
“It’s good for drivers to see several police cars stopping vehicles to get their minds thinking about following traffic laws, whether that be texting or seat belts,” Walswick said. “The longer you drive without police presence or getting away with something, you are going to continue to do that. If you see police stopping motorists, it puts an alarm in them that I don’t want to get a ticket.”