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An Inside Look at Catching Distracted Drivers

West Hartford Police Officer Mike Coyne speaks with a cellphone violator who is about to get a ticket. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

On Monday, Sept. 22, 2014, I did a ride-along with the West Hartford Police Department Traffic Division’s Distracted Driving Detail!

By Ronni Newton

West Hartford Police Officer Mike Coyne speaks with a cellphone violator who is about to get a ticket. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Police Officer Mike Coyne speaks with a cellphone violator who is about to get a ticket. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

If you’re sure it’s okay to have a quick phone conversation while driving down the streets of West Hartford, think again.

Unless you have a hands-free device – and your hands and eyes are completely off your phone – you will not outwit the eagle-eyed officers of the West Hartford Police Department.

“Distracted driving frequently leads to moving violations,” said Officer Mike Coyne as I settled into the Chevy Traverse, one of the West Hartford Police Department’s unmarked vehicles. Along with several marked cars, we would be part of Monday’s “Distracted Driving Detail” led by Capt. Jeff Rose of the Traffic Division. There were a total of four police vehicles dispatched to the day’s target area – which varies but on Monday was Elmwood – focused on enforcing cellphone and distracted driving laws.

The West Hartford Police have this unmarked Chevy Traverse. It catches many offenders by surprise. Photo credit: Ronni Newton.

The West Hartford Police have this unmarked Chevy Traverse. It catches many offenders by surprise. Photo credit: Ronni Newton.

Mike (that’s what he told me to call him) reviewed the specifics of the law with me, and responded to my questions, many of which were motivated by personal experiences. I confessed that I had eaten a sandwich in the car on the way to the police station, and he said that if my eating had caused me to look away from the road, it could be considered distracted driving. (Putting on makeup, playing with the radio, reaching for something in the backseat – all can be considered distracted driving.)

Basically, if you’re under 18, don’t even think about having a handheld mobile device available. Ever. That includes the GPS on your phone. Go ahead and get a little lost like we all did before GPS existed, or pull over (safely off the road or in a parking area; stopped at a light doesn’t count) and then open up your Google Map app.

If you’re over 18, you can use hands-free mobile devices, but you can’t touch them while you’re driving. And as of Oct. 1, 2013, “driving” includes being stopped at a light or in a traffic jam. You can use your phone as a GPS device, but set it before you start driving. If you have to use the phone, use a Blue Tooth device. The speaker on an iPhone is okay, but don’t hold the phone in your hand. Those little white ear buds that came with your iPhone have a built-in microphone, so in a pinch you can put a bud in one ear and communicate that way. Or better yet, wait until you are not in the car to communicate.

Texting while driving: a major no-no.

Checking email while driving: also not okay.

“Just don’t do it while you’re driving,” said Mike, who used to work on the accident investigation team. “As soon as you bring your attention inside the car, you’ve lost your focus.”

We parked alongside Capt. Rose in the driveway by Pepe’s Pizza, facing New Britain Avenue. Within two minutes, Capt. Rose took off after an offender.

It took about 10 more minutes before Mike spied the next offender, and he was actually surprised about how well people were behaving. Then he spied a female driver in an Acura, her phone to her ear. I never would have noticed.

We caught up with the Acura and pulled the driver over into the Bombay Olive parking lot. Mike asked the driver if she was using her phone, and she readily admitted it. She said she had a Blue Tooth but it was too hard to hear.

The ticket for a first offense is $150. “It’s tough delivering news like that,” Mike said. “You’re delivering bad news, but you try to be as nice as possible.” He was firm but friendly with everyone he pulled over that afternoon. He said sometimes people cry when they’re pulled over – the men as well as the women.

West Hartford Police Officer Mike Coyne processes an E-ticket for a cellphone violation. Photo credit: Ronni Newton.

West Hartford Police Officer Mike Coyne processes an E-ticket for a cellphone violation. Photo credit: Ronni Newton.

Before we even left the Bombay Olive lot Mike spotted another offender, a man who came to an abrupt stop at the light at New Britain Avenue and South Main, holding his phone in his right hand and texting. (Even I noticed this one.) Sirens blaring and lights flashing, we apprehended him a few blocks down South Main after he finally pulled over. This driver tried to deny he was texting at first, but eventually admitted it.

Victim no. 3 had a mounting device for his phone, but it was in his hand. He said he was holding his phone while ending a call, but that’s still a violation. The next violator, who didn’t move when a light changed because he was focused on his phone, was from out of state. He claimed he didn’t know Connecticut law.

The guy eating an ice cream cone who cut across two lanes of traffic without signalling could have been cited for distracted driving because he also committed a moving violation. But we were in the wrong lane and he got away with it.

West Hartford Police Officer Mike Coyne waves over a driver on New Britain Avenue who was spotted by another officer down the road. The driver doesn't notice Mike until the last minute, because he was still on the phone. Photo credit: Ronni Newton.

West Hartford Police Officer Mike Coyne waves over a driver on New Britain Avenue who was spotted by another officer down the road. The driver doesn’t notice Mike until the last minute, because he was still on the phone. Photo credit: Ronni Newton.

We switched tactics, with a spotter reading out the make/model/color of car, plate, and description of driver and the nearest officer pulling the victim over. To stop one of the spotted drivers, Mike had to step out onto New Britain Avenue and wave the driver into a side street. “I really don’t like spotting because I have to step into the roadway. He didn’t even realize I was there until the last minute,” Mike said of the driver who was still distracted by the phone when Mike was waving him over.

Another driver stopped for using his phone said he was listening to music on the device and changing the song. That’s still a cellphone offense according to the law.

In most of the cases, I hadn’t noticed the driver holding the phone, even though I was looking for it. Mike said that when you’re always looking for offenders, it heightens your senses and you’re much more aware. He notices even when he’s not working.

The Traverse is equipped with an E-ticket device, making the process of ticketing accurate and efficient. After giving out seven tickets in about two hours, already a new record for Mike, we were ready to head back to the station.

We pulled onto New Britain Ave., right behind someone who was … on the phone. And then the driver turned left onto South Quaker Lane from the center lane. Without signalling. That offender was also driving without a valid license. The sum of the fines for the cellphone violation, improper turn, and operating without a license: $440. That was one expensive call.

If you do receive a ticket, and are offered a reduced fine by the prosecutor as a settlement, Mike’s advice is to take it. Sometimes the hefty fines can be cut in half or even by 60 percent, he said.

Mike said he is usually positive that someone is using a cellphone if he’s pulling them over for the violation, but he told me that one time he and another officer stopped a woman they were sure had a phone in her hand. “You mean this,” she told them, holding up a Capri Sun pouch. The silver side of the pouch had appeared to be a phone. They apologized and let her go.

“If I had to guess, I’d say most [of the violators] go uncaught. For every one you get, there are many more out there,” Mike said. He and the other officers on the Distracted Driving Detail hope that the campaign has at least raised awareness. On Monday afternoon there were approximately 30 tickets handed out, Capt. Rose said.

The Distracted Driving Detail was all extra duty for the West Hartford Police officers who participated, paid through an $18,525 grant that financed the overtime hours. The department will still pursue offenders, Mike said, even though the campaign is ending.

Cellphone violations are different from distracted driving, which has to be accompanied by another moving violation to be enforced. Here’s a good summary of the law, which is a bit easier to read than the actual statute (although it has a link to that if you want the complete legal wording): http://www.cga.ct.gov/2013/rpt/2013-R-0438.htm

The statutes regulating traffic laws, and some of the handouts given to cellphone and distracted driving offenders. Photo credit: Ronni Newton.

The statutes regulating traffic laws, and some of the handouts given to cellphone and distracted driving offenders. Photo credit: Ronni Newton.

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