Forty-four states ban all drivers from texting behind the wheel, but that doesn’t seem to stop many of us.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that at any given daytime moment, over 600,000 drivers are using cell phones or other electronic devices while they are driving. In 2012, over 421,000 drivers were injured due to distracted driving, and 3,328 people were killed, the agency says.
Texting is among the most dangerous forms of distracted driving, tripling the risk of a crash, but it is often difficult to detect. “If a person is hiding their electronic device in their lap or other less than obvious place it can be hard for an officer to observe them texting,” says Technical Sergeant James Cleary, spokesperson for the New York State Police.
While texting is illegal in most states, a violation is treated very differently depending on where you live. Fines for a first-time offense vary from as little as $20 to as much as $250. About a third of states assign driver’s license points (See “10 things you need to know about driver’s license points”) or consider a texting ticket a moving violation. Others specifically prohibit use of a texting ticket as a reason to raise insurance rates.
If a texting ticket does hit your record, insurers typically see it as a minor infraction, says Insurance.com managing editor Des Toups. “It’s like a speeding ticket for 5 mph over. Your rate shouldn’t go up if that’s the only thing on your record. If you have other tickets as well, it could be a different story.”
A texting ticket involving an accident is more serious. Fines typically jump dramatically, and an injury accident can even bring a year in jail in Maryland.
Here is a quick rundown on the latest techniques the police are employing to spot texters.
6 ways the cops know you are texting
1. The panhandler on the corner
The next time a panhandler approaches your car, you had better put your phone down, at least if you live in Canada.
Canadian cops dress up as panhandlers in order to get up close and personal with drivers. Officers in Ontario and British Columbia have slipped on hoodies, donned baseball caps and clutched tattered cardboard signs (complete with misspellings) before hitting busy street corners.
Welcome to Operation Hobo Cop.
Their cardboard signs offer an upbeat message on one side and a clear warning on the other. One read, “My name is Constable Mike Cairns. If you are reading this sign you are about to get a cell phone ticket.”
Despite clearly identifying themselves on their signs, the Canadian cops often had to tap on the window in order to get a driver to look up from their phone.
Officers in one Burlington, Ontario, handed out 61 tickets in a single day, only to shatter that total the very next day with 111 citations written.
2. The trucker in the next lane
SUV cruiser catching people texting and driving (Photo: Jim Fitzgerald/AP)
Elevated SUVs and even 18-wheelers give officers a bird’s-eye view of a driver’s hands. If they appear to be texting, it’s citation time.
Last year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo committed $1 million toward putting modified Chevy Tahoes on the road that sit higher than other vehicles. He also raised the fines associated with texting and driving. First-time offenders are hit with a fee of between $50 and $150 as well as a whopping five points on their licenses.
The high-riding SUVs worked: New York State troopers handed out 5,553 distracted driving tickets in a two-month period last summer, compared with 924 in the same period a year earlier.
Cops in Tennessee are going even higher, cruising 18-wheelers to peer into passenger cars. They radio their findings to troopers in patrol cars who do the actual ticketing.
3. The spotter on the overpass
Visibility is key to catching drivers in the act of texting, and an overpass is the perfect vantage point.
NHTSA recently awarded $2.3 million to Connecticut so that towns there could experiment with various high-visibility enforcement measures, including overpass spying.
It works like this: A spotter stands in an area where he can clearly see vehicles passing below at a slower speed. Intersections, stop signs and stoplights are common stalking grounds. When the officer observes a violation, he radios waiting officers who issue the citation. Spotters give a clear description, including the color of the car, color of phone and even which hand they were holding it in.
If all of this feels like an invasion of privacy, it isn’t. According to Adam Rosenblum with The Rosenblum Law Firm in New York City, “the ‘plain view’ doctrine dictates that a driver does not have a privacy right in anything that can be observed in plain view (e.g. through a window). Therefore, a high-riding SUV or even binoculars that would give an outsider a better vantage point poses no constitutional issues.”
4. Your own cellphone records
This is not a commonly used tactic unless you have been involved in a car accident that resulted in an injury or death.
If the police believe texting led to an accident they will gladly pursue your phone records. “If we believe someone had been texting and driving … we can go through a process to obtain those phone records,” Trooper Jeff Petucci of the Pennsylvania State Police told CentralPa.com.
“It’s not an automatic thing, but at the same time if it’s a crash that causes serious injury and death we’re going to look at that angle if someone has been texting and driving,” Petucci says.
5. You, staring at your own lap
Drivers busy with their phones tend to be obvious. They drive slowly, hesitate at lights and are prone to weaving. Display any of these behaviors and there is a good chance you will be pulled over.
According to Omar Jaleel, an attorney in Oak Brook, Illinois, your behavior can lead to a ticket. “The police report for many of my clients state that the cab of the car was illuminated by the phone or that the person was looking down and making movements like someone who is texting.”
Sometimes the distraction is beyond ridiculous, “Oftentimes people are so distracted with their device that they don’t realize there is a police car with lights and sirens trying to pull them over,” says Cleary, of the New York State Police.
6. And now, the texting detector
The police soon may have a new tool in their arsenal when it comes to detecting drivers who can’t put their phones down.
A Virginia company called ComSonics is developing a radar gun-like device that detects the radio frequencies that are emitted from a vehicle when someone is using a cellphone. “Cable repairmen use similar means to find where a cable is damaged by looking for frequencies leaking in a transmission,” Malcolm McIntyre of ComSonics told The Virginian-Pilot newspaper.
The company claims that the gun can tell the difference between a text and a phone call.
How soon the gun will be in the hands of police officers is anyone’s guess. Bret V. Harrison, director of repair services at ComSonics, told Insurance.com that the device is still early in its development process.
[Related video: Man stopped for texting while driving had $175K in heroin in spare tire]