Perhaps it’s not a surprise that texting and driving laws are hard to enforce. After all, most of us now use our phones for GPS navigation—and,
almost never occasionally, phone calls, instead of texting. Over the past several years, state after state has enacted official bans on distracted driving, but not only do those laws vary between states, it turns out, they also can prove difficult to actually enforce.
The stats on distracted driving are undeniably scary: Each week, 3,000 people die in car crashes because of distracted driving. Depending on which survey you site, anywhere from 37 percent to nearly half of adults admit to texting and driving—even though they know how dangerous it is.
So what’s a law enforcement officer to do about this problem? It turns out, the answer often involves some creativity.
Why texting and driving is hard to catch
Short answer: Because people are sneaky. Longer answer: There are privacy laws that protect law enforcement officials from being able to simply snatch your phone from you, so police officers often report that even people they catch in the act will deny that they were texting, saying instead that they were using their phone’s navigation system. We reached out to our home base of Austin’s police department and spoke with Lieutenant Robert “Rich” Richman, a member of APD’s Highway Enforcement Command for Motors. We asked him how hard it is for him, personally, to catch texting drivers.
“The City [of Austin] Ordinance for Texting While Driving, in its current configuration, can be challenging to enforce. Two factors that are defenses to prosecution include making a phone call and using the phones mapping/navigational features.” In other words, because it’s not illegal to call someone or torture Siri, drivers can cop to those behaviors instead, getting themselves off the hook. The APD’s best defense for this habit? Motorcycles.
“Often times, [motorcycle] officers are in the best position to observe what the offender is actually looking at on their phones due to the proximity we get from the driver while on our police motorcycles.”
But the APD isn’t the only police force getting creative about observing drivers’ texting behavior—not even close, actually.
Funny solutions for a serious problem
Sometimes to make a big difference you have to make a big splash. Over in Las Vegas (because, where else?) a police officer recently dressed as a leprechaun in order to call attention to distracted drivers in pedestrian crossing zones. Is that all that fuss really necessary, you might say, to which we’d answer, watch this video in which a distracted (or just plain rude) driver nearly hits the not-so-little green man smack dab in the middle of the journalist’s interivew.
Up in Toronto, things got even crazier back in March of this year, when a police officer dressed as a panhandler, “wandering along a city street while peeking at drivers as the cars passed by.” One side of his sign read “I’ve got high hopes” (A Frank Sinatra quote); the other read “Hello, I am a police officer. If you are reading this you are about to get a cell phone ticket.” Some called the tactic sneaky and underhanded; others praised him, and one reporter dubbed him Hobocop.
Meanwhile, in Minnesota, police officers tackled a particular stretch of highway using a team of officers, some strategy, and—wait for it—a school bus. “The spotters in the bus had a birds-eye view in the cars and they can see exactly what the drivers are doing,” Sgt. Kevin Otto explained to news station KARE Minneapolis.
The elevated vantage point of the school bus, combined with its camoflauge, allowed for easy viewing of passenger. If the drivers or passengers did something illegal, the spotters in the bus could send a radio call out to squads travelling alongside it; those officers would then pull the offenders over.
What officers can’t do
Even if an officer suspects a driver of distracted driving, however, he can’t just ask them to hand over their phone. “Constitutional and recent case law does not allow us to seize or search the phone for texting and driving,” Richman explains. “Of course, if it is suspected that texting is a factor which caused a death or serious injury, our Vehicular Homicide Detectives will seize the phone and obtain a search warrant in accordance with the rules of evidence.”
And that’s tough, Richman explains, because people generally don’t admit to anything they do that’s illegal—texting and driving, or other driving offenses. “Often times excuses will be made until you inform them what you were able to observe that lead you to believe there was sufficient probable cause to make the stop to begin with,” Richman says. “This is not limited to texting, but occurs often when enforcing traffic regulations. All of our motorcycles and patrol cars are equipped with cameras which many times capture the violation on camera. With texting, often times there are other violations that exist that brought your attention to the driver, like swerving from lane to lane or abrupt movements left and right—nearly causing crashes.”
Is it really that bad out there?
Oh yeah, says Richman. “I have personally ridden next to drivers who are surfing Facebook or reading emails while driving. The police motorcycle is often times not seen when riding next to the driver’s window. This can also be very dangerous for our officers since the driver is unaware, due to their distraction, that you are next to them.”
Richman’s belief is that the law alone is just not enough to stop distracted driving behaviors. A push for a broader, social change is the belief behind those billboard campaigns in California, which plastered pictures of distracted driving offenders in high-visibility areas. The theory goes that it’s only by shaming one another that we can really change people’s habits. “Education and awareness is key,” Richman says. “Without those, enforcement alone will not inspire a long-term change to this behavior.”