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'It only takes a second': Inside a Maryland State Police trooper's day of distracted driving enforcement

It’s a little after 10:30 a.m. on a Friday, and Maryland State Police Trooper First Class Matt Spencer is parked in his patrol vehicle, an unmarked SUV, just off Md. 140 in Westminster.

Then, with no warning, a white van passes by. Spencer looks closely at the driver of the vehicle, and he throws his SUV into drive.

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A few cars get between Spencer and the van, so he has to weave through a couple of lanes of traffic before flicking his emergency lights on. The van pulls over, and Spencer has successfully made his stop.

The trooper isn’t hunting a fugitive or looking to serve an arrest warrant. He’s looking for motorists who are distracted by their cellphones while driving. The van driving was holding the steering wheel in one hand, and his cellphone out ahead of him in the other.

“People think it’s a minor thing,” Spencer said. “But it only takes a second for something to happen.”

Spencer collects the van driver’s information and says the driver admitted pretty quickly that he had, indeed, been using his cellphone while driving. People who get upset when they get pulled over for being on their phone — or for any reason — Spencer says, are the “exception.”

It’s this driver’s second time being stopped for using his cellphone while driving, Spencer says. Because of that, he’s getting a citation, not a warning.

April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and because of that, State Police troopers are out doing special enforcements, looking for drivers on their phones. Road signs are lit up with messages that tell drivers to “park their phones” before they drive.

Yes, you can get pulled over for it

Looking down to answer a text or choose a song from a playlist, just for five seconds, police officials say, is the equivalent of driving the length of a football field while blindfolded, if you’re moving at highway speeds.

Using a handheld device is a primary offense in Maryland, meaning police can — and do — pull drivers over for doing so.

And no, Spencer said, you can’t hold your phone and talk on speakerphone. That still counts. Devices that are mounted or integrated into the car stereo are usually OK, though. (“If it’s in your hand, it’s no good,” Spencer said.)

In Maryland, more than 27,000 people are injured and 185 die each year because of distracted driving, state officials said.

First-time offenders who get caught using a cellphone can face a fine of $83, second-time offenders face a maximum fine of $140 and third-time offenders face a fine of $160.

If the use of a handheld device contributes to a crash, the fine for texting can increase from $70 to $110, and drivers can face up to three points on their driving record.

Jake’s Law, enacted in Maryland in 2014, says any driver who causes serious injury or death can face up to three years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

From Jan. 1 through April 17 this year, MSP troopers issued 5,344 citations and 5,460 warnings for distracted driving, according to Ron Snyder, a police spokesman.

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And, despite stereotypes about young people being attached to their phones, tablets and other devices, Spencer said he pulls over drivers of all ages. Next to speeding, distracted driving is what Spencer most often stops motorists for, he said.

“Everyone has cellphones these days,” he said.

Education? ‘Absolutely’

Later in the day, Spencer is driving down Md. 140, doing a “special enforcement,” looking for distracted drivers. He’ll go on special enforcements for different infractions during the year, he said, but most special enforcements for distracted driving happen in April.

As he cruises along, a silver sedan drives by, and Spencer sees the driver, a young woman, with her cellphone held up to her ear. He pulls behind the driver with his lights on, and she pulls into a parking lot.

He gets the woman’s license and registration — she’s young, not yet 21 — and sees that she’s not been stopped before because of distracted driving. He decides to offer a warning, because this can “absolutely” be an educational moment. He says the woman seemed nervous to be pulled over.

As he leaves his SUV to hand the woman her official warning, he grabs a pamphlet from his back seat that lays out the consequences of distracted driving and urges motorists to leave their phones out of their hands while driving.

Parts of his job are educational, Spencer says — including traffic stops that end with warnings instead of citations.

“My logic is … use [them] as a learning tool,” Spencer said. But that level of benevolence does not extend to repeat offenders.

“When I see [a motorist] has been stopped before,” he said, “I know they’re aware of the law.”

The one time he remembers pulling someone over who had never been stopped before, but giving a citation instead of a warning is because the driver admitted to using SnapChat while they were driving.

“That is extremely dangerous,” Spencer said.

In about two hours of enforcement, Spencer stopped just two drivers for distracted driving. He saw plenty of other drivers on their phones, but stopped at red lights. Typically, Spencer said, they wait for the vehicle to be in motion before making a distracted driving stop.

There were some instances where someone was on their phone, but too many lanes away, and the trooper has a philosophy of not forcing through lanes of traffic to get to a driver, in what could create a dangerous situation. There are situations where he sees people on his phone but just can’t get his vehicle behind them in time.

As someone who responds to emergency situations, Spencer said he’s upset to see so many people on their phones. It’s an unnecessary risk.

“I don’t think everybody grasps how dangerous it can be,” Spencer said, “just to take your eyes off the road for a second.”

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