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Saturday, May 15, 2021

Undercover officers catch texters

Undercover deputies from the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office are employing a new lookout strategy to enforce distracted driving laws.

Stationary officers in plain clothes now stand on the sidewalks while silently watching for those who text and drive. After spotting someone on their phone, the undercover officers communicate through their radios and have another officer in a car or on motorcycle pull the drivers over.

Drivers are not allowed to hold cell phones or other wireless communications devices to their ears, according to distracted driving laws. The fines for infractions can reach up to $124, and even more in some cases.

“About 30 percent of all the fatalities on the road [in Washington] involved distraction,” said Doug Dahl of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

“I would just encourage people to remember that the whole reason they’re driving is to get somewhere safely, and they should focus on that.”

The sheriff’s office has used undercover deputies to enforce seatbelt laws and now uses the method to crack down on distracted driving. Officers are being deployed not only in Whatcom County, but across Washington State. 

Patrols are much easier for deputies to stand stationary than to drive, Dahl said.

“I think it’s a sneaky solution, but I think we will have to wait and see how it works,” said Western senior Soren Wellman, an electrical engineering major. “Maybe, it will reduce the [phone] uses. I think we’ll have to see what the results are in order to judge.”

“In addition of doing enforcement, we’re also trying to communicate the message that it is dangerous to text or talk on your phone while driving.”

Doug Dahl

Michael Bliss, a Western graduate majoring in educational administration, doesn’t consider this method the most efficient way of enforcing distracted driving laws.

Its chance to raise public protection brough Bliss on board with the idea.

“I doubt it [would effectively reduce the amount of people texting and driving] cause I think people who do it are just gonna do it anyway,” Bliss said. “Since when they get caught, they’ll deal with the consequences. If they don’t get caught, they will keep continue to do it. I’m not sure.”

A 2015 survey hosted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety showed 77.4 percent of respondents felt threatened because of distracted drivers on the road, but more than 42.3 percent continued using cellphones.

The Washington Traffic Safety Commission is also working heavily on finding the way to change people’s views about driving safety, Dahl said.

Using phones while driving becomes such a common thing nowadays. Ten percent of people at any given time are texting and driving, Dahl said.

“In addition of doing enforcement, we’re also trying to communicate the message that it is dangerous to text or talk on your phone while driving.”

“Not everybody feels that way. They think they can do it safely, but we’ve seen increases in crashes with people talking or texting on their phones,” Dahl said.

According to a 2013 report on distracted driving in Whatcom County, 12.5 percent of Whatcom County drivers were distracted because of texting or talking on a cellphone. Among the distracted drivers, 52 percent of them were texting.

“I think that [the strategy] is good,” said junior Logan Bridges, a computer science major. “We definitely need to cut back on texting and driving because it’s really dangerous, and you get really distracted if you’re texting and driving at the same time. It’s better to answer your phone later when you’re not driving.”

The law states people are not allowed to text or conduct handheld phone conversations while driving, Dahl said. Using the speaker to answer phone calls is not considered a violation of the law.

According to the same report, among drivers using their phone while driving, only 10 percent used a hands-free communications device.

In addition, the law forbidding texting and driving doesn’t mention other functions of smartphones such as checking stocks, playing games, updating emails or even watching videos. This becomes a difficulty in enforcing the law.

Many people have assumed that using online apps like Pandora or SoundCloud on their phones while driving isn’t considered to infringe the law. But there is ambiguity.

A proposed bill would allow officers to check driver’s phone usage after an accident. This would enable officers to determine whether a phone was used illegally while driving. The bill is still in the process of consideration and has not been signed into law.

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