The Salem News
---- — We’ve all seen it: You’re stopped at a red light and the driver ahead of you is so engaged with his smartphone, he doesn’t notice when the light turns green. Or, worse, a driver on the cross street fails to see that the light has turned red and keeps going.
We all know by now how dangerous texting while driving can be. But lots and lots of drivers are still doing it. Local drivers are about to be reminded it’s against the law.
Massachusetts is one of two states chosen for a pilot program paid for by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The pilot program is designed not only to enforce a state’s law against texting while driving but also to develop enforcement methods that can be applied across the country in other states with anti-texting laws — at this point, there are 41 of them.
While it sometimes seems as if almost everyone has a smartphone these days, police are still learning how to spot and stop drivers in the act.
State Police Lt. Col. Edward Amodeo said $275,000 of the federal money will be used to train 190 troopers and deploy saturation patrols “looking, observing and watching,” mirroring past special patrols to crack down on drunken driving and road rage.
“We have a couple of strategies we will be developing going forward,” he told reporter Bill Kirk.
Another $460,000-plus is earmarked to monitor and refine those strategies to better combat texting while driving.
“The challenge is that it’s difficult to enforce these laws, which is why this project is so important,” said Maria Vegega of the NHTSA. “It’s an important step to saving lives.”
One issue for enforcers is that the variety of handheld devices is proliferating and so is the number of applications. Drivers are no longer limited to flip-phones.
Nationally, 24 percent of all crashes are reported to be related to the use of handheld devices of one kind or another, while distracted driving, including texting while driving, is blamed for 3,000 deaths and 400,000 injuries annually.
Research using driving simulators by Donald Fisher of the University of Massachusetts Amherst backs up police observations about the threat posed by texting behind the wheel. He found drivers are 23 times more likely to get into an accident while texting — compared to only three or four times more likely for drivers who are legally drunk.
Massachusetts’ law on texting while driving applies to drivers of all ages, as does New Hampshire’s. The fine for first offenses in both states is $100. Massachusetts drivers under 18 are also forbidden to use a handheld cellphone while driving.
In the past, we have opposed blanket bans on use of cellphones while driving. But we have long supported vigorous enforcement against those who drive erratically, whether they are texting, shaving, applying makeup or engaging in any of the other unsafe activities police say they have observed on the roads.
Such behavior is a threat not only to such drivers but also to drivers who obey the rules out of concern for those who share the road with them as well as their own well-being.
The special saturation patrols targeting drivers who text will be conducted for periods of two to four weeks at a time. They will start with the June 10 through 29 campaign of Essex County-based State Police Troop A.
Don’t say you weren’t warned.