By Bill Kirk
---- — Local, state and federal officials gathered at the State Police barracks on Route 125 in Andover last week to announce the start of a grant-funded pilot program to enforce the state’s Safe Driving Law, which prohibits texting and driving, among other unsafe practices.
The specialized enforcement will take place in two- to four-week intervals over the next two years. The first installment will occur through June 29 on state roadways in the 12 communities covered by Troop A, including Andover.
State Police Lt. Col. Edward Amodeo said the $275,000 grant from NHTSA will help train and deploy 190 troopers to specifically look for distracted drivers, especially those texting and driving.
“We will have saturation patrols looking, observing and watching,” Amodeo said. “We have a couple of strategies we will be developing going forward.”
As the program unfolds, he said, it may be refined as troopers determine what works best. Their findings will be passed along to police departments in the other 41 states across the country that have texting-and-driving laws.
Another $468,000 is in the budget for monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of the program.
Meanwhile, the state Legislature is getting back into the act. A Transportation Committee hearing is scheduled for June 26 to review a bill requiring the use of hands-free mobile devices while driving.
Amodeo said the problem is bad and getting worse.
“We see it every day,” he said. “People with their heads down and texting. It’s problematic and very dangerous.”
He said 24 percent of all crashes in the U.S. are related to hand-held devices. In Massachusetts from 2010 to 2012, there were 128 car accidents with citations issued for texting while driving.
“Billions of text messages are sent every day and too many are sent by the operators of motor vehicles,” said Michael Geraci, administrator of Region 1 of the NHTSA.
Nationally, approximately 3,000 deaths a year are attributed to distracted driving, with a growing number of them related to the use of electronic devices while driving. Geraci said 400,000 people a year are injured as a result of distracted driving.
During a ride-along with a state trooper, a Townsman reporter and photographer saw first-hand just how prevalent texting and driving is.
Sitting in a marked cruiser in Shawsheen Square for less than five minutes, Trooper Michael Miskell saw the telltale signs of an illegal texter: Head down, one hand on the wheel, one hand on the phone.
He put the cruiser into gear and gunned it into the busy intersection, following a silver Lexus driven by a man with a flip-phone.
Lights flashing, Miskell eventually pulled the SUV over on the ramp from Route 28 to Interstate 495 south. The driver, from Wilmington, confessed he was e-mailing, but that he didn’t know that was illegal. But it is, and he got a $100 ticket.
“In terms of the degree of dangerousness, he’s using a very, very small device for e-mailing,” Miskell said, after issuing the man a ticket. “That is less than ideal.”
A trooper for 21 years, Miskell has seen all sorts of crazy stuff on the roadways. These days, much of his time is spent patrolling the highways for people using their cellphones or other electronic devices while operating a motor vehicle. And he sees a lot of them.
“Distracted driving in the daytime is one of my main focuses,” he said. “Our true mission is really reducing crash fatalities.”
Soon after, another woman passed through the intersection while holding her cellphone in her left hand, which was on the top of the steering wheel. Miskell turned on the cruiser’s lights and gave chase, pulling her over on Route 133 near Andover High School.
As he spoke to the woman, she voluntarily let him look at her phone, and he noticed that she hadn’t been texting. She said she had been trying to plug her phone into a power cord.
Miskell gave her a written warning for impeded operation. Also, she had no license in possession.
“For me, it’s about education,” Miskell said. “It’s important for people to understand why their device is a distraction and that they are more likely to crash if they are distracted.”