Height matters: Cops in tractor trailer bust distracted drivers
If you drive in east Knox County, Tenn., that big rig you just passed may not be operated by a trucker but rather a state trooper on the lookout for people texting and driving.
An 18-wheeler confiscated by state police in 2004 from a drug trafficker had primarily been used to educate teen drivers about the dangers of tractor-trailer blind spots, but troopers now use it to enforce the state's driving-and-texting ban. (Pictured right: Photo by PoliceMag.com.)
The Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP) this week started using the THP tractor trailer to get an elevated – and more advantageous – view of what drivers are doing in their cars to better catch those who text while driving, according to a WBIR.com news report.
Though the truck is clearly marked with the THP logo, the troopers using it say most drivers don't notice that it is an official patrol vehicle, primarily because they are not paying attention. The police typically use just the front end of the truck when scoping the roads for texters.
So far, it's working. Police report issuing dozens of tickets in the first few days of the patrols.
Here's how the operation works: One trooper drives while another one observes drivers. When a distracted driver is spotted, another officer in a cruiser is notified, who then pulls over the violator.
Texting while driving is common, but hard to prove
Currently, 41 states ban texting while driving. If you are cited, state laws dictate whether or not your insurance rates will go up or you'll get points added to your driving record. In Tennessee, a ticket for texting behind the wheel carries a maximum $50 fine, but a car insurance surcharge isn't likely because the infraction isn't considered a moving violation.
News of the big rig as a tool to fight texting and driving in "The Volunteer State" comes at a time when the federal government is offering grant money to help boost enforcement in municipalities that agree to test new crackdown methods and when Tennessee in particular is having a hard time catching offenders.
In September, The Tennessean newspaper reported that police in that state issued very few texting tickets since the state banned the practice. A review of traffic records for 15 law enforcement agencies showed just 389 texting citations issued since the law went into effect in 2010. Officers witness the infraction quite often, but find it difficult to prove, according to the news report.
State texting ticket laws
The following states have a texting-while-driving law specifying that violations add points and/or is considered a moving violation:
- Alabama: 2 points
- Colorado: 1 point
- District of Columbia: 1 point and is a moving violation; 3 points if it is judged to have caused an accident.
- Maryland: 1 point and a moving violation; 3 points if the texting contributed to an accident.
- Nebraska: 3 points
- New York: 5 points
- New Jersey: 3 points for third offense
- North Dakota: moving violation
- Nevada: first offense not considered a moving violation; repeat offenses can have points added
- Vermont: 2 points for first offense and 5 points for a subsequent offense
- Virginia: 3 points
- West Virginia: 3 points for third offense
- Wisconsin: 4 points
Several states make an insurance surcharge less likely by specifying that breaking the texting law won't result in extra points or be considered a moving violation. In addition to Tennessee, they include:
- California: no points and not a moving violation
- Delaware: no points
- Idaho: no points and not a moving violation
- Iowa: no points; not a moving violation
- Louisiana: no points; not a moving violation
- North Carolina: no points and not a moving violation
- Washington: no points and not a moving violation
There are a handful of states that prohibit insurers from raising rates based on texting violations. These are:
- North Carolina
Des Toups is a writer, editor and expert on insurance, cars and personal finance. He has written extensively about all three for national publications such as MSN and major newspapers such as the Seattle Times. He has been quoted about insurance issues in The New York Times, USA Today and Kiplinger's. Follow him on Twitter @destoups.