Crime Scenes: Police on lookout for drivers on cell phones

Officer William Kinsey had no sooner pointed his unmarked Chevy Tahoe north on Interstate 95 when he spotted the newest scofflaw. "There's a guy talking right there," he said.

The guy was behind the wheel of a brown Ford pickup truck speeding along in the fast lane of the highway near Moravia Road. He was chatting away on a cell phone pressed to his ear, an activity that on Oct. 1 became a crime in Maryland.

But it's not a crime for which Kinsey, a veteran with the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, can flip on his flashing lights and force the driver to pull over. Lawmakers made the statute a secondary offense, meaning the driver would have to break another law before he could be cited for talking on a hand-held phone.

And the driver of this brown pickup wasn't cooperating.

"He's only very slightly above the speed limit," Kinsey told me, clocking the man at 61 mph in a 55 mph zone. The driver once nearly drifted into another lane, his tires briefly crossing the white dashed line, but that still wasn't enough.

Kinsey turned his attention to other drivers while the pickup sped on, the man's conversation uninterrupted by law enforcement.

If the new law's intent is to force drivers off cell phones and onto speakers or headsets, then police say it's working. Officers report seeing fewer people distracted by holding a cell phone in one hand and steering their cars with the other.

Police agencies have yet to compile statistics — the law is just over a week old — but Kinsey said that before Wednesday, when I accompanied him for a few hours cruising up and down I-95 on both sides of the Fort McHenry Tunnel, he had not written a single ticket for illegal cell phone use.

We saw about a dozen people on their phones.

But most weren't breaking other traffic laws, at least not severely enough to get a ticket. Kinsey could've easily pulled all of them over — each and every one was traveling at least a few miles over the limit. But he didn't want to abuse his authority. He stopped only people he would have stopped without the new law.

But make talking on a cell phone a primary offense and Kinsey could've written a dozen tickets.

The officer called driving while talking "absolutely distracting." He noted, "If someone is talking on their cell phone, they're already doing something else wrong, such as speeding or following someone too closely."

Kinsey was in an unmarked sport utility vehicle, which allowed him to drive in the slow lane and peer down into cars as they passed. The people on phones seemed to have tunnel vision — staring straight ahead without looking left or right.

"Completely oblivious," said Sgt. Jonathan Green, who was sitting in the back seat, watching a woman absorbed in her conversation, unaware of the hulking vehicle next to her.

From the seat high above the road, the bad habits of Maryland drivers were clearly visible. It was Wednesday afternoon, at the onset of the evening rush hour and with a setting sun low enough to throw a blinding glare into windshields. Traffic was backing up near off-ramps and drivers anxious to reach home were jockeying for position.

Some were hungry — one man who passed Kinsey was eating pizza, the dripping slice draped over his steering wheel. Others were driving while reading. Cops said driving while applying makeup is a common sight, and one told me about once seeing a driver with a parrot on her shoulder.

None of those actions are illegal, however.

The new law targets people holding cell phones. And up and down the busy highway, Kinsey kept pointing out drivers breaking the new law, which carries a $40 fine for the first offense and a $100 fine for the second.

"That guy there just hung his up," Kinsey said. "I don't know if he saw me or not."

The law requires that drivers talk on hands-free devices, either with an earpiece or a speaker phone. Holding your cell phone on your lap and speaking into it is just as illegal as holding the phone to your ear, but that didn't stop many drivers from trying that tactic.

Kinsey's job isn't just targeting speeders and people chatting on phones. On Wednesday, he helped colleagues chase down the driver of a stolen BMW on Annapolis Road, just off I-295. Officers were alerted by scanners that read license plates at toll booths and send alerts on numbers linked to cars reported stolen.

This officer is part of a special enforcement team, and he targets the most aggressive, ill-behaving drivers.

So if the brown pickup didn't merit much notice, what does warrant Kinsey's attention, and a ticket, for illegally using a cell phone?

Minutes after helping arrest the guy with the stolen car, he noticed a blue sedan with Maryland state government license plates speeding north on I-95. The license plate holder proclaimed, "Drive Safely."

But the driver was doing anything but. He was holding a cell phone to his ear with his left hand and his right hand was resting on his lap. He was steering with his knees, clocked at 82 mph in the highway's fast lane in rush-hour traffic.

Kinsey flipped on his lights and pulled him over. The driver had injured his right hand and it was bandaged, making it impossible for him to use it to steer. That didn't stop him from using his only operable hand to talk on the phone.

He became Kinsey's first catch under the new law, earning a warning for speeding and a $40 fine for the phone.

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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