Disguised as panhandlers, utility workers and construction teams, law enforcement officers are getting creative in their efforts to catch distracted drivers.

On Wednesday, police officers in Eagan boarded a school bus and from that higher vantage point peered into vehicles as they rolled down the road, looking for motorists texting while driving.

“We should not have to put these types of operations together,” said Mike Hanson, director of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Office of Traffic Safety. “These creative strategies are done with one focus, to bring attention to the chronic epidemic on our roads that does not have to be there.”

The unusual tactics come during a three-week statewide crackdown on distracted driving that ends April 30. Officers are using a variety of measures in that time to catch and correct drivers’ behavior — and educate the broader public about the risks of distracted driving plus the new state law prohibiting drivers from using hand-held phones that takes effect Aug. 1. Distracted driving is a factor in one out of five crashes, according to the Department of Public Safety.

Research from AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found a majority of drivers rank distracted driving as their top concern on the roads, yet half talk on cellphones and more than a third have sent a text or e-mail while behind the wheel. The results can be deadly.

The AAA research found that drivers who talk on a cellphone are four times more likely to be involved in a crash. The risk is eight times as likely for those who text. Yet despite knowing the dangers, drivers continue to engage in bad behavior, putting themselves and others in harm’s way.

Citations for texting in Minnesota hit a five-year high in 2018 and were up 30% from the previous year. Just this week, the State Patrol stopped a 24-year-old man on Interstate 35 who was texting and speeding and a host of other drivers for activities that included reading e-mails, Snapchatting and watching videos. That’s the reason police have to take drastic steps, Hanson said.

“Police are watching even though drivers don’t notice them,” he said.

Eagan police officer Tyler Goodling had no trouble spotting a scofflaw as the surveillance school bus he was on rolled up at Yankee Doodle Road and Denmark Avenue.

“Black Outlook, [license plate], woman manipulating phone with both hands and kids in the back seat,” he radioed to a squad waiting around the corner. Another officer pulled the woman over and issued her a citation.

The sting, called “Busted by the Bus,” was aimed to get drivers to pay attention around school buses. As many as 18 drivers pass school buses that have stop arms out and red lights flashing each day in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District, and many are distracted, said Eagan officer Aaron Machtemes.

“We have had school buses rear-ended” by distracted drivers, said Kathryn Forbord, director of operations for Schmitty & Sons bus company. “That puts kids in danger.”

Different tactics

Megan Hedberg saw another special distracted-driving enforcement operation in action on Monday in Anoka.

As she approached Main and Ferry streets, she noticed a man holding a cardboard sign as he walked the median at the busy intersection often frequented by the homeless. But the man wasn’t panhandling — he was a plainclothes officer using a radio to call out offending motorists to waiting police. She saw several squads had stopped drivers.

“It’s good that they are cracking down on distracted driving,” she said. “Pretty crafty. I like them coming up with clever ways.”

That four-hour operation Monday resulted in 34 citations for texting and 15 for drivers for not wearing seat belts, said Sgt. Andy Youngquist of the Anoka Police Department, which teamed up with police from Blaine and Ramsey for the joint enforcement effort.

Minnesota law prohibits drivers from texting, reading or composing e-mails or accessing the web while behind the wheel. That includes when stopped at a traffic light.

Last fall in Apple Valley, officers in a cherry picker appeared to be fixing a traffic signal, but they were actually looking down into cars to watch drivers afoul of the law. In a four-hour period, police issued 62 tickets to motorists for texting and driving and warnings to 39 others.

Law enforcement must observe a driver texting before initiating a stop and issuing a ticket. When the new law takes effect, police will only have to see a driver with a phone or electronic device in hand to issue a ticket. The penalty for a first offense will be a $50 fine, rising to $275 for additional violations.

It’s not just Minnesota where police are being as sneaky as drivers.

In Tennessee, where a hands-free bill is pending, the state has “Operation Incognito,” in which officers ride in semitrailer trucks and on city buses to watch for distracted driving. The most recent operation in November 2018 resulted in 3,377 tickets written for distracted driving and other violations, said Arriale Tabson, a spokeswoman with the Tennessee Highway Safety Office.

Brenda Garcia, whose 12-year-old daughter rides a school bus, has seen motorists blow by buses and nearly hit children getting off them. She was driving by a parking lot in Eagan where the school bus used for the “Busted by the Bus” had parked for a moment and stopped to thank police.

“This is awesome,” she said. “This is a great thing.”