The sheriff’s deputies zoomed alongside the white pickup whizzing down Cliff Road and snapped a picture of the driver using his smartphone to send an e-mail.
Then they pulled him over and wrote him a $50 ticket.
In the war against distracted driving, police are reaching deep into their bag of tricks to catch drivers who tap out text messages, video chat and even watch movies as they roll down the road, so engrossed in their activity that they don’t realize they are being watched.
Officers are riding bicycles between vehicles stopped at traffic signals and standing on corners with binoculars to peer into car windows. In Woodbury, police are using GoPro cameras in squads to record drivers who are checking their Facebook pages and sending tweets.
The State Patrol and the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office use the spotter system, in which a deputy in an unmarked car or a high-profile vehicle such as a school bus or public works truck spots a driver manipulating an electronic device, then radios ahead to an officer in a marked squad who pulls the motorist over.
“It’s not sneaky,” said Dakota County sheriff’s deputy Tim Gonder, who was working a distracted driving detail on Wednesday, gathering photo evidence as he went, in case drivers claimed they weren’t on their phones. “We’re using them … to give us the advantage.”
Officers can ask to see a driver’s phone, which may show screens full of text messages, Facebook pages and the popular FaceTime video chatting app, all things Gonder has seen when drivers offer up their phones. But drivers are not required to hand over their phones, which can make it more difficult for officers to prove their case if drivers won’t own up to their misdeeds.
That’s why police are resorting to using still digital cameras, squad dash cams and GoPro cameras to document the action. While officers can issue a warning or citation even without proof, images help bolster their case should the ticket end up in court.
An overwhelming number of American drivers know that texting while behind the wheel is illegal, and 78 percent say it’s a serious threat to public safety, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Yet the practice has reached epidemic levels and forced police to go to extreme measures.
It’s not hard to spot a distracted driver, said Sgt. Matt Schuster of the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office. The telltale signs — drivers’ eyes and heads going up and down, slow starts at traffic signals and vehicles that drift over fog lines — give them away.
That’s how Schuster and Gonder spotted Kayla Hestness with phone in hand exchanging text messages with her fiancé as she rolled past their unmarked squad Wednesday afternoon while making a left turn at a busy Eagan intersection. The deputies made a fast U-turn, got behind Hestness’ blue Honda and pulled her over for violating the state law that prohibits motorists from texting while behind the wheel.
“I had used my phone at the stoplight,” Hestness sheepishly admitted as she stood on the shoulder of Hwy. 13 and Cliff Road during the stop. “I think it’s pretty dangerous — I’ve heard the horror stories,” but confessed she did it anyway. She said she won’t be using her phone while driving anymore.
As the deputies traversed streets and highways in Burnsville, Eagan and Apple Valley in a Ford Explorer, they saw scores of drivers glued to their phones and “double thumbing,” the term they use to describe drivers who were using both hands to text. They radioed to officers waiting down the road who pulled the drivers over.
“Black Trailblazer heading toward 160th, anybody free,” Schuster put out over the police radio. “Green Jeep Cherokee on Hwy. 13 in Burnsville,” Schuster said another time.
Hestness’ case was a slam dunk as she admitted her offense to the officers. But other times it’s not cut and dried.
If they don’t have video or photo evidence, and a driver denies cellphone access, police can request an administrative subpoena to get a driver’s phone records, said Sgt. Scott Melander of the Woodbury Police Department. He’s resorted to such measures.
Melander said he takes specific steps to ensure he has an airtight case before writing a citation. That includes using his squad video and narrating behaviors he sees, such as driver’s eyes going up and down, tapping on the screen, driver not talking or phone going to the ear.
“The more you have, the easier it is when trying to prove something,” Melander said. “You look at it from the judge and jury perspective and see if you can prove beyond a reasonable doubt. I don’t go to court often.”
Research conducted by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute found that reaction times double when drivers are distracted by text messaging. A split second in reaction time can mean the difference between getting in a crash or avoiding one. Drivers using cellphones are three times more likely to get into crashes, according to research by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.
Distracted driving accounts for one in four crashes and results in at least 70 deaths and 350 serious injuries a year in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
Schuster suspects that with cars having so many amenities, “people have gotten to the point that they think cars drive themselves,” he said. “People get relaxed and complacent doing it. It’s like they are in a recliner at home while driving. They think that if I can text at home, why can’t I text while driving.”
Distracted driving is not limited to texting. It includes conduct such as changing music, using navigation systems, eating and drinking, reading books and watching movies — all behaviors Gonder has seen. On Wednesday, Schuster and Gonder caught one woman using both hands to brush her hair while driving.
But texting is the overarching problem, Schuster said.
“It’s an uphill battle,” Melander said. “But when you realize how dangerous it is, that distracted driving mirrors drunken driving, it is a fight we are willing to have, and have it every day.”