The Minnesota State Patrol will be going to some unusual lengths on Thursday to ticket drivers for texting and using their cell phones to read or compose e-mail.
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 the cabs of semitrailer trucks looking for motorists whose shoulders are hunched, thumbs are moving in a scrolling motion or fingers in a typing flurry, two telltale signs of drivers who using their phones illegally while they are behind the wheel.
Minneapolis police along with more than 400 law enforcement agencies statewide also will be on the lookout for distracted drivers as part of Thursday's crack down, 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 purpose of Thursday's enforcement is for people "to get their hands off the phone and get their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road."
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 to 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."
Once observed, an officer in a squad teamed with the bus will stop the offending motorist.
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, activities that require visual, cognitive and manual behaviors and take the focus off of driving.
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 emails. 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 which takes a drivers' focus off of the road, isn't just limited to cell phone use. A recent study by Erie Insurance 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 driver distractions.
Distracted driving causes nine deaths and 1,060 injuries as a result of vehicle crashes 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."