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Trooper Jackson writes out a ticket for talking on the phone while driving along Rt. 11 between Canton and Potsdam. Photo: Natasha Haverty
Trooper Jackson writes out a ticket for talking on the phone while driving along Rt. 11 between Canton and Potsdam. Photo: Natasha Haverty

How to catch a distracted driver

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In 2001, New York passed its first law banning the use of handheld cell phones while driving. Thirteen years later, penalties keep getting tougher; points keep getting higher. Just last year the state added 300 new signs along roadways across the state with the message "it can wait."

But we aren't waiting. People keep texting and making calls on the road, and it's such a problem that two years ago Gov. Andrew Cuomo overturned an almost 20-year ban on unmarked police cars, introducing a fleet of Concealed Identity Traffic Enforcement (or CITE) vehicles just to crack down on distracted drivers.

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Reported by

Natasha Haverty
Reporter and Producer

(You can read ten distracted driving questions, answered, here.)

Troop B of the New York State Police, which covers most of the North Country, currently has three of those unmarked vehicles. State Trooper John Jackson, Jr., is driving one. It's 11 in the morning, and the needle of his speedometer is creeping past 100 mph. Trooper Jackson is out to stop a distracted driver.

"Male driver had a cell phone in his left hand up to his left ear? A black cell phone."

At first some cars in front of us don't pull over, and some pretty confused faces show in the rearview mirrors, until they figure out this is a police car. Jackson says it's harder to see that without the lights on the top of the SUV.

Photo: Natasha Haverty
Photo: Natasha Haverty
But by the time we hit the first traffic light in Canton, we've lost the guy. I ask Jackson if it's normal for him to go that fast. "To catch up to some cars, yep. If you're sitting still and somebody goes by you at 75, 80 miles per hour, you're sitting still, for you to catch up to that car it's going to take some time, even at that high a speed."

This all may seem dramatic, barreling down a highway to catch a guy on the phone. But distracted driving is a real threat to public safety. Of the 251,000 crashes across New York state in 2012, distracted drivers caused one in five of them. That's more than the crashes attributed to drunk driving. Just three days ago a woman's car rolled into a ditch in Ogdensburg because she was on her phone.

"You know some people feel it's not dangerous while they're doing it; they feel they're driving safe. As well as when you stop someone for a DWI they think they're fine to drive a lot of times."

Jackson grew up in the North Country and always knew he wanted to be a state trooper. He's been on the force for 10 years, and driving his unmarked SUV for six months.

And even though he's agreed to let me in on the science of what he does, he says there's no big mystery: it's just about looking really closely: "Pretty much my thing is, both hands on the wheel?"

Sitting in a driveway along Route 345, Jackson's head turns to follow every car that passes, like he's watching a tennis match in slow motion. CITE vehicles are a little taller than your normal SUV, which makes all this scouting a little easier. Lots of people have just one hand on the wheel; Jackson watches if cars cross the center line, or swerve along the side.

Jackson says some people he pulls over don't even understand that they're breaking the law. "You'll get the occasional people that will be talking on the cell phone they'll have the Bluetooth through the speakers of the car but they'll have the phone in the hand? And they believe that's hands free? Which, hands free is having nothing in your hands at all."

Another thing he says people don't understand constitutes distracted driving is using your phone as a GPS: It doesn't matter what you're holding your phone for, it's still against the law.

Jackson says sometimes he'll pull a driver over that he's seen with a phone to their ear, and they'll deny that they were talking, even if the phone's lying right there on the passenger seat. In those cases Jackson still writes a ticket, though he's sure to explain how people can file for a reduction.

And this isn't just about cell phones—the weirdest example of distracted driving he's ever seen? "I stopped a guy for having his computer on his lap."

Jackson says the guy was typing, and told him he was writing up something for work. "That's probably the oddest one I think I've had."

A few times, he's actually pulled over the same person, in the same spot, for doing the same thing. In fact, Jackson says despite this being a spread out, rural area, it's still a small community, and he's got a whole list of those people in his head. "I'll stop the same person over and over, obviously recognize their vehicle until they maybe get a new one or have another one."

You'd think people would learn. A distracted driving violation carries five points on your record, plus a fine between $50 and $100: a second can cost up to $200.

"Hopefully these people will spread, you know if they do get a ticket, and find out what the consequences are, they'll spread it to friends and family, and so on."

The week I took my ride-along with Jackson was actually a statewide crackdown on distracted driving. It even had a name: Operation Hang Up. Just in the morning I spent with Jackson, he went after eight cars, and pulled over seven. And around New York during that five day period, the state police issued more than 2,300 tickets for talking on the phone, and more than 1,100 for texting: a total of 3,471 tickets for distracted driving.

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