Police using buses to catch drivers on their phones
Austin, Texas —
Drivers using cell phones beware! Police may be watching you from above.
Austin Police have started a new initiative to crack down on hands-free ordinance violators. Lieutenant Jerry Gonzalez said a KEYE poll showed most people in Austin thought the new ordinance that took effect in early 2015 wasn't being enforced as well as it could be. So the department came up with a new initiative; it uses buses.
"We thought that there'd probably be more compliance by this point, but obviously there's still some more work to be done," said Lt.Gonzalez.
On Thursday, February 4, the new initiative issued 40 hands-free citations in two and a half hours between Riverside Drive and Rundberg on I-35. The way they did it was by using spotters on a CapMetro bus. The spotters worked with 12 motorcycle cops spaced along the interstate to pull people over as the spotters looked for violators.
"As we would drive down, the two spotters - if they spotted a violation - they would then call out the car, the vehicle, the driver - and then whoever was closest to it would make the stop," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez explained drivers using cell phones has been a major issue. There was a 24% increase in phone related crashes from 2014 to 2015. So they wanted to try and catch people using phones on the major freeways like I-35.
Bus commuter David Strychalski knows that problem all too well.
"You could look down, see people texting while they're headed down Mopac. I can't understand that I just simply can't understand that thinking," Strychalski said.
Strychalski rides the bus every day to and from work. He sees people on the phone from his vantage point behind the bus window all the time.
"Way too many people on their phones and texting," Strychalski said. "It's really dangerous, it really is."
That's the reason why APD uses a bus like Strychalski rides in, the vantage point. In cars, many times police can only see a driver looking down. If they don't see they're using a phone, then they can't give them a citation.
"You probably have seen driving sometimes you can tell people are on their cell phones because their head is looking down to their lap, back and forth but we as officers need to see the phones being used," Gonzalez said.
That's why the bus helps because it's higher than most cars. So officers can look down and see people using their phone as well.
"You can't be talking on it, you can't have it to your ear, you can't be programming GPS on it," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said he was very surprised at the number of people they issued citations to in their first try. They even let 12 drivers go because they didn't have enough cops to pull them over.
"Pretty amazing, that many violators, that quick," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said it's pretty difficult organizing all the resources together to get this initiative going. However, he says they're planning another trip in mid-March.
"One is too many, so we're trying to change that culture," Gonzalez said.
That's good news for Strychalski, to try and stop a problem he sees every day.
"Fine them, maybe that'll work, maybe that'll get their attention at least," Strychalski said.