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State Police hone ways to catch drivers texting behind the wheel

3 years after distracted driving ban, police start to get hang of enforcement

Troopers are hoping to deter distracted driving by ticketing as many people as possible.

George Rizer for the Boston Globe

Troopers are hoping to deter distracted driving by ticketing as many people as possible.

State Police have launched an aggressive new attempt to ticket drivers who text, the second wave of an experiment seeking the most effective way to detect illicit behind-the-wheel cellphone activity.

Some troopers stay in unmarked cars on the side of the road to catch texting drivers. Others slowly cruise the middle lane to watch as people pull out their phones. Still other troopers may try standing in plain clothes at intersections, watching people text, then
radioing ahead to other officers who pull the driver over.

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The troopers are hoping to deter distracted driving by ticketing as many people as possible. During the first wave of the enforcement effort, conducted during a three-week period in June, police cited 440 drivers in the Merrimack Valley for sending electronic messages while driving, and another 509 drivers for the vaguer offense of “impeded operation.”

Collectively, it amounted to almost four times as many citations as were handed out in the entire state in June 2012. The current wave of enforcement, also in Merrimack Valley towns, runs into mid-October.

“Right now, it’s an enormous problem on the highway,” said Lieutenant Stephen J. Walsh, who is overseeing the crackdown. “It’s probably to the same level as impaired driving with alcohol and drugs.”

‘It’s probably to the same level as impaired driving with alcohol and drugs.’

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The crackdown, which is funded by a $275,000 grant, will help other law enforcement agencies learn how best to spot texting drivers, a task that police around the country who are beginning to enforce new bans say has confounded them.

In 2010, Massachusetts legislators were lauded for passing a ban on sending or receiving electronic messages while behind the wheel, though the measure drew criticism from some highway safety advocates because it did not ban all handheld cellphone use.

Since then, police around the state have struggled to enforce the law, they say. Often, suspected texters, when pulled over, say they were dialing a phone call or using the GPS on their phone — activities that are not outlawed. Some police were wary about going after drivers they wouldn’t be able to ticket.

In 2010, State Police handed out 138 citations for sending or receiving an electronic message, which increased to 504 in 2011 and 828 in 2012.

Cities and towns dispensed just a handful: Last year, Boston police handed out only 93 texting-while-driving citations.

Increasingly, Walsh said, police are taking a broader tack, citing more people for “impeded operation” under an older and vaguer law that prohibits people from doing anything in their cars that interferes with operating the vehicle.

“To put together a texting-while-driving case, you have to look at them for a long time and be able to see what they’re doing on their phone,” Walsh said. “You can do that sometimes, but it’s difficult.”

“Now, we’re saying, ‘Maybe you weren’t texting, but you were looking at your phone going 60 miles per hour. That’s distracted driving,’ ” he continued.

A spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the grant, which was also given to police in Connecticut, was conceived after federal officials noticed that the number of distracted driving citations given out in states with limited texting bans was much lower than in states that ban all hand-held cellphone use.

The Massachusetts municipalities targeted under the grant are Andover, North Andover, Dracut, Dunstable, Lawrence, Lowell, Methuen, Reading, North Reading, Tewksbury, Tyngsboro, and Wilmington.

In addition to paying for the police overtime costs, the grant pays researchers to conduct on-street surveys to determine whether the crackdowns reduce the number of people texting on the road.

During the crackdown, Walsh said, officers are free to try different tactics to see what works.

“We’re allowing them to be creative in how they do this,” Walsh said.

Jeff Larson, president of the Safe Roads Alliance, a nonprofit based in Wellesley that is dedicated to promoting safer driving, said the effort demonstrates that police around the state are beginning to do a better job of enforcement.

“It’s a new thing to try to figure out how to enforce something like this, and there’s a lot that’s being learned,” Larson said. “They’ve never done this before, so they need to learn techniques and teach techniques.”

Larson said police around the country are also learning improved tactics on how to enforce distracted driving bans. For example, he said, it’s become clear that officers need to be in unmarked SUVs, rather than sedans, so they are better able to look down into the driver’s seat of the car.

And in a suburb outside of Toronto, police with radios are being stationed in city buses, so they have a better view of drivers texting in street traffic.

“They’re getting a better sense of how they can best see people in their cars and feel more confident they’re doing something wrong,” Larson said.

Larson said he still hopes the Legislature will prohibit all hand-held cellphone activity, but until then, he said, it falls on police to look for wiggle room.

“There’s a gray area there, and the Legislature needs to clean up that gray area,” Larson said. In the meantime, police “are being more active in defining what the law is and how they’re able to enforce it.”

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.

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