Nashville, TN (The Tennessean) On Thursday, Metro police began what few, if any, police agencies have done in Middle Tennessee to combat texting while driving: text patrols. Nashville Metro is pooling the department's unmarked SUVs to cruise Nashville's trouble spots, peer down at drivers and ticket those who just can't disconnect. The SUVs, many of which were seized from drug cases, are used by specialized detectives like the department's gang unit.
Though other Tennessee agencies do enforce the texting law, oftentimes the only time a driver is cited for texting while driving is when there's another offense.
"The drivers usually admit to texting as their excuse for the other violation, believe it or not," said Kyle Evans, spokesman for the Murfreesboro Police Department. "We do use undercover vehicles to look for dangerous driving, including texting while driving, but the texting is usually the reason for the dangerous driving."
Tennessee outlawed texting while driving in 2009, making it a $50 fine. But enforcing the new law has proved difficult. The Tennessee Highway Patrol gave out 54 tickets for texting while driving in 2009, the year the law began, and an additional 171 in 2010. Nashville Metro police have doled out 44 texting tickets since the law started.
Hard to spot violators
Police say it's hard to spot texters on the road. Dialing and talking on a phone is legal. Texting, cruising the Web and reading e-mails is not. But telling the difference can be hard, particularly from patrol cars.
"It's not as simple as you see someone speeding, you pull them over and give them a ticket," said Sgt. Mark Denton, a Nashville Metro police traffic supervisor. "You have to observe them, watch them. It presents some unique challenges."
One of Denton's best guys, Officer Burl Johnson, hit upon a solution in December while the two drove to Knoxville for an award ceremony.
"I've got a truck that sits up pretty high, higher than a car," Denton said. "He just noticed cars passing by, 'Hey, look at that joker texting. We ought to do this when we get back.' "
Denton said the unmarked trucks have police lights and sirens for when they pull over the texters. But just in case, he said, they'll have marked cars on standby if wary drivers don't stop.
"It is weird getting stopped by an SUV," he said.
Law enforcement has aggressively publicized the texting ban. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last spring called texting while driving an "epidemic" and unveiled a virtual war on the practice. In January, LaHood banned commercial truck and bus drivers from texting while driving.
Police have followed suit with education campaigns.
Mt. Juliet Police in Tennessee, discuss texting at their defensive driving and distracted driving programs. This weekend, their officers will discuss the issue at a church youth conference. They also speak at high schools.
"By statistics, the under-20 age group are the most common distracted drivers," said Cpl. Tyler Chandler.
Public awareness is key
Awareness is key to police plans. Denton said he wants the public to know that they'll be sweeping the interstates looking for texters. Davidson County in 2010 had a 9 percent increase in traffic fatalities, in part because of distracted driving.
BY BRIAN HAAS - THE TENNESSEAN