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Police to crack down on texting while driving

Traffic on I-93 in February.
Traffic on I-93 in February.(Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)

Massachusetts drivers, take heed — police officers will keep a sharp lookout this month for those who illegally send text messages and check their e-mail behind the wheel.

The state’s Highway Safety Division is teaming up with state and local police in more than 140 cities and towns in a statewide crackdown on distracted driving from Friday until the end of the month. The effort is part of a national campaign called “U Drive. U Text. U Pay.”

“We don’t want people thinking this is just a problem for teens,” said Jeff Larason, the state’s director of Highway Safety. “Adults do the vast amount of texting while driving.”

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The state has received more than $600,000 in federal funds to help local police departments cover the cost of deploying more officers, officials said. While distracted driving laws are notoriously difficult to enforce, police will be keeping a close eye on the roads.

“We’ll have keen eyes on drivers,” Salem Police Captain Conrad Prosniewski said. “Texting will be the number one thing we’ll be looking for.”

Massachusetts banned texting while driving in 2010, as part of a safe driving law that also banned those under 18 from using a cellphone while at the wheel.

Enforcement has grown stricter in recent years, according to state statistics. In 2015, police handed out more than 6,100 citations, up from about 3,350 in 2013.

Distracted driving poses a significant threat to public safety. From 2010 to 2013, 184 people in Massachusetts died in crashes that were caused by distracted driving, state officials said.

One of them was Howard Stein, who was killed five years ago when a 17-year-old driver who was programming her GPS crashed into his car in the breakdown lane on Route 2.

“This hits home for me in a very personal way,” said his daughter, Emily Stein, who runs Safe Roads Alliance, a Medford advocacy group. “So many deaths could be prevented if people paid attention.”

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The group supports pending legislation that would allow talking on a cellphone while driving only when using hands-free technology. The state Senate approved the measure in January, and a similar bill is now before the House Ways & Means Committee.

“The hands-free bill would not make driving risk-free,” Stein said. “But it would make it so much easier for law enforcement to enforce the law.”

Police officers say catching drivers who are texting is tricky because they typically hold their phones in their laps.

“It’s a great law, but it’s hard to enforce,” said James Graham of the Bedford Police Department, which looks for distracted drivers as part of routine traffic patrols. “People are not required to show us their phones. . . . We give people a verbal warning, but other times, a distracted driver leads to another traffic violation that we cite them for.”

In Cambridge, where police issued 527 texting citations last year, “spotter officers” will walk up to cars at red lights to look for people who are texting or reading e-mails on their cellphones.

“We will have an increased presence and vigilance,” said a police spokesman, Jeremy Warnick.

In Newton, officers will be deployed in both marked and unmarked cruisers.

“We mean business,” said Marc Gromada, a captain for the police department. “We’re going to be out there looking for people who are not paying attention.”

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Melrose police plan to keep a close watch on commuters driving to work or rushing to the train.

“We get pretty heavy traffic here, and a lot of distracted drivers,” Chief Michael Lyle said. “A lot of the times, they ignore people standing in a crosswalk.”

Arlington police plan to pursue a different enforcement strategy this month — a campaign on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media to remind people not to text while driving.

“The law allows for enforcement,” Police Chief Frederick Ryan said. “But I think the education piece is just as important as writing a ticket.”


Kathy McCabe can be reached at Katherine.McCabe @globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.