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Maryland cop dressed as homeless man catches drivers texting

More than 40 states have laws banning texting while driving. But it continues, so police are trying unusual approaches at enforcement. 

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    In this Monday, Sept. 21, 2015 photo released by the Somersworth Police Department, Officer Anthony McKnight poses undercover in Somersworth, N.H., with a sign, intending to catch violators of the state’s ban on the use of hand-held phones or electronic devices while driving. Nearly 100 drivers were ticked during the five-day sting, including a woman who was ticketed after giving in to her daughter’s pleas to snap a photo of the sign.
    (Matt Duval/Somersworth Police Department via AP)
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A Maryland police officer went undercover dressed as a homeless man to catch people who were using their phones while driving.

Cpl. Patrick Robinson went undercover Tuesday morning equipped with a police radio and a body camera. He held a sign that read, "I am not homeless. I am a Montgomery County police officer looking for cell phone texting violations."

Montgomery County police Sgt. Phillip Chapin and about eight other officers issued a total of 56 tickets county-wide that day, including 31 tickets and 9 warnings to people caught using their phones without hands-free devices.

A similar style police sting was conducted in Somersworth, N.H. in September.

The Associated Press reported that Somersworth police Chief Dean Crombie said that when New Hampshire's texting law took effect in July, he noticed far fewer drivers using their phones. But as time passed, the problem ramped up again.

"About two weeks ago, I was sitting in an unmarked car watching traffic, and everyone and their brother was on their phone," he said. "So we were looking at innovative ways to maybe come down on people."

He turned to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which noted that other departments have used tractor-trailers or planes to look down on drivers or positioned undercover officers on traffic medians. Somersworth settled on a five-day sting, with two officers — one with the "repent" sign and the other posing as a homeless panhandler. Officers stopped about 110 cars and issued 96 tickets.

With more than 40 states banning text messaging for drivers and a dozen states prohibiting use of hand-held cellphones, police departments around the country are getting creative when it comes to enforcement. Chapin says authorities are seeing more distracted-driver-related deaths as a result of people using their phones while behind the wheel.

Here are some statistics compiled by Distraction.gov:

  • In 2013, 3,154 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes involv­ing distracted drivers. This represents a 6.7 percent decrease in the number of fatalities recorded in 2012. 
  • 10% of drivers of all ages under the age of 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crash. 
  • Drivers in their 20s make up 27 percent of the distracted drivers in fatal crashes.

The Christian Science Monitor reports:

"There are always going to be distractions," says David Teater, senior director of transportation strategic initiatives at the National Safety Council, whose 12-year-old son was killed in a crash caused by a driver on a cellphone. "But the advent of mobile electronic communication devices has really changed the game because they've become so phenomenally prolific in such a short period of time. We've been talking on the phone for 80 years. We've been driving 100 years. It's only recently that we've tried to combine the two."

A 2009 AAA Foundation study found that 91.5 percent of drivers considered talking on the phone while driving a serious threat to their safety; 97 percent said it was completely unacceptable to send a text or e-mail while driving. But two-thirds of those people admitted talking on their own phones while driving, and 1 in 7 have texted while driving.

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