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Riding along as Syracuse police enforce distracted driving laws

Consumer Reports News: April 15, 2011 01:38 PM

Consumer Reports has partnered with the Department of Transportation to increase awareness of the issues with distracted driving, and we have done so through a variety of initiatives, from hosting a distracted driving summit to creating a pamphlet for distribution through the DOT. But, we wanted to learn more. To better understand the problem and the challenges of law enforcement, Autos Editor Rik Paul and I went to the frontlines in Syracuse, New York, this week to ride along with police as they worked on their final wave of the “Phone in one hand, Ticket in the other” distracted driving campaign.

Syracuse police is one of two cities (Hartford, CT, is the other) who received a grant from the DOT last spring to test the effectiveness of waging a high-visibility enforcement campaign against distracted driving. Similar strategies used for enforcing seat belts and curbing drunk driving have been credited with helping to drive down deaths and increase compliance of those laws.

After the first two waves, handheld cell-phone use dropped 56 percent in Hartford and 38 percent in Syracuse. Texting was reduced 68 percent in Hartford and 42 percent in Syracuse. After three waves, Syracuse handed out over 6,500 tickets and Hartford nearly 7,000. The final wave in Hartford ended last week and Syracuse goes until Saturday, April 16th. We’ll report on their results in a future blog.

On a dreary, rainy day, we joined Captain Shannon Trice from the Syracuse police department to see first hand the campaign and process for ticketing. I had never riden in a police car before (thankfully), so it was quite a memorable experience. We buckled up and headed out to a few areas around the city to try to find cell-phone offenders. Trice shared a few of his methods, including sitting up high off the main road to get a bird’s eye view, sitting on the side of the road in an unmarked car, and blending with traffic (which is the least preferred as it’s hard to look around and focus on driving).

While driving on my personal commute to work, I routinely see people talking or texting, however, it was more difficult to spot them sitting in a parked vehicle off the road, especially in the rain. That is where the police experience kicks in. Their trained eyes spot and notice everything. Almost every time, the officers saw someone breaking the law before I did.

Syracuse.BMW.jpgAll the ticketed drivers spoke with knew about the laws, but they may not have been aware of the campaign or hadn’t heard that this was the week for heightened enforcement. While not all people were interested in speaking to the media after they were caught, as you could well imagine, a few did share their thoughts.

Some said they knew using the phone was “stupid,” that they shouldn’t be doing it, and that they had learned their lesson. Others had a variety of excuses, including they were talking to their mom or their doctor. One man said his friend was calling him to tell him about someone speeding on campus. (Unless he was a cop, I was not sure how important that information was.) A few said they were just checking the time. (Uh, huh. Most cars have clocks in them.) One man said he didn’t agree with the law, explaining that people should take their driver’s test while talking on the cell phone and for those who can pass, they should get a stamp that allows them to talk and drive. He explained that it’s no different than eating a ham sandwich or switching the radio station in the car, which he said was more complicated than talking on the phone. (He was driving a BMW 7 Series, so he may have a point regarding the controls.)

We averaged about four tickets per hour with a mix of handheld cell phone use and texting, but since texting is a secondary offense in New York, drivers needed to commit another infraction as well to be ticketed. If they are doing everything else right, police have to leave them alone.

While the process of waiting around and watching vehicles drive demands patience, officers we spoke with enjoyed the focused time for enforcement and felt this was an offense worth ticketing. Great multitaskers, the police also used their staging to look for other offenses using a license plate scanner. As one officer sat in an unmarked car watching for distracted drivers, he also had a car-mounted camera taking pictures of all the passing vehicle license plates. Those images were compared against DMV databases, looking to identify stolen, unregistered, or uninsured vehicles. If any is found, another officer pulls them over and gives a ticket.

In these final days of the campaign, Syracuse police will be out in force and after the program ends, they say they will continue their work on what they feel is an important traffic safety campaign.

For more on distracted driving, see our special section.

Liza Barth

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