Police repeatedly remind us that people drive badly over the holidays. They're aggravated, irritated, crowded, rushed and overwhelmed, and put behind a wheel of a car and on a road with others who feel the same way, they become maniacal.

But spending a few hours with a state trooper on Baltimore's highways to see just how bad we are at maneuvering around and through the post-Thanksgiving Day and pre-Christmas crush revealed another dimension to the problem. And it had nothing to do with getting to the store or the party on time.

Cell phones.

At stop after stop on Tuesday, drivers told Cpl. Jeff Kirschner they were doing something with their phones (though none was texting, which is now illegal) and weren't paying attention to their speed, the road, the cars in front of them or even that they had blown by a trooper while topping 85 mph.

"That driver is going 84, and she's on the phone," Kirschner remarked about one woman. "He's going 76 mph and is on the phone," he said again a few minutes later.

One young man said he was trying to do the right thing - searching for the button to end a call from his mother - when he plowed into the back of a car on a Beltway ramp to Interstate 95. The crash sent two people, one a pregnant woman, to hospitals and backed up traffic for miles.

Then there was the woman who nearly sideswiped Kirschner's unmarked Crown Victoria as he wrote someone else a ticket. Suspecting that the woman was drunk, the trooper pulled her over. But she said she didn't notice she had drifted into the breakdown lane because she was on the phone.

Drivers didn't even have to have a cell phone to be distracted by one.

One man caught tailgating in the fast lane of the Beltway told Kirschner that the slower driver in front of him "was on his cell phone and I couldn't take it anymore." The trooper ticketed him for aggressive driving.

Kirschner is 33 years old, a former Marine and a veteran trooper of eight years. He supervises four other troopers in a wide expanse of Maryland highways. Working out of the Golden Ring barracks in eastern Baltimore County, he and the others are responsible for patrolling more than 200 miles of highway - the Beltway all the way around to I-70, I-83 from the city line to the Pennsylvania border, part of I-795 and part of I-95.

At one point, with other troopers out on calls, Kirschner was alone on his beat. He got a quick succession of calls over his radio: The first reported an erratic driver straddling lines on the Beltway. The second was that the driver had exited at Cove Road. The third was that the driver had crashed.

Kirschner was, at that moment, at another car stop on the Beltway near York Road, and even at high speed with lights and sirens on, it took him nearly 20 minutes to get from Timonium to Essex. He darted in and out of stalled and slow-moving traffic but arrived well after Baltimore County police had the investigation nearly completed. The woman had crashed just off the exit ramp (state police jurisdiction) and on a road (county police jurisdiction).

Kirschner's vehicle has radar that clocks cars heading toward him and behind him, and it works whether he's driving or standing still. He said southbound I-83 coming out of Pennsylvania has the most speeders - "they hit triple digits" - while northbound I-83 leaving the city has the most drunken drivers.

Most speeders told Kirschner they were unaware how fast they were going. "I just don't know how you don't know you're going 85 mph," the trooper said.

So the holidays bring stepped-up enforcement of our bad driving habits, not just from Maryland State Police, but from departments all over.

Kirschner warned everyone he stopped to slow down and be careful. One man pulled over in a rental car on the Beltway, having just stepped off a plane at the airport, asked the trooper if there were any more police on I-83.

"I'll be there shortly," Kirschner replied.

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