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Bob Moon: Kindly put down your cell phone now, and please pay attention. More states are establishing bans against talking and texting while driving. But the question of how to enforce those laws,
and catch drivers in the act, is a tough one.
Today, the Obama administration announced a new project to help police officers in two states crack down on distracted driving. WNYC’s Collin Campbell has this report.
Collin Campbell: At any given moment in America 812,000 vehicles are driven by someone using a hand-held cell phone. They cause one out of every six fatal crashes. So transportation officials and cops around the country are trying to stop these distracted drivers.
Chuck DeWeese works for the governor of New York’s Traffic Safety Committee.
Chuck DeWeese: Meet a family who has had a loved one killed because somebody was texting “lol” to somebody else. It makes you want to throw up.
The Department of Transportation program hopes to follow the success of “click it or ticket” seat belt enforcement. The agency is splitting $400,000 between two states, Connecticut and New York.
That’s where Shannon Trice of the Syracuse Police Department comes in. He’s helping to develop that city’s program.
SHANNON TRICE: We are going to look for people’s behaviors, we’re going to be looking for cell phones up to the ear, cell phones in the hand. We’re going to be looking for people looking down their lap and using their hands texting. We’re going to try and catch people through observation.
Trice also plans to use plainclothes officers and surprise checkpoints. In crash investigations, he’ll subpoena phone records to see if the driver was texting or talking.
On a recent afternoon, Captain Trice parked his unmarked car on a corner in Syracuse. Four minutes later, a silver Nissan went by, its driver breaking the law.
TRICE: She’s talking on her cell phone. So she was talking to it in front her face.
But here’s where things get interesting. Just as Captain Trice starts to pull over the driver, his own cell phone starts.
TRICE: This is quintessential. Phone call. Pulling over somebody and getting interviewed. Distractions!
It’s the third call he’s received in the last half hour on patrol. This time, he doesn’t answer and pulls over the driver in the Nissan.
TRICE: Good afternoon, ma’am. Shannon Trice with the Syracuse Police Department. The reason I stopped you is because I saw you talking on your cell phone. Do you have an explanation for that?
DRIVER: No, I don’t.
TRICE: OK, do you have a license and registration?
Trice says it took five years of heavy seatbelt enforcement before he saw that behavior change. This new federal and state money will pay cops overtime to ticket as many distracted drivers as they can. It all begins today, in hopes of getting the word out by the busy summer driving season.
In Syracuse, N.Y., I’m Collin Campbell for Marketplace.