Police in the south metro are getting creative in catching distracted drivers.
On Wednesday afternoon, five Eagan police officers sat inside an empty school bus and peered outside for motorists driving distracted or violating the stop arm law. When they saw a violation, officers relayed information to patrol cars positioned in the area to make a stop.
The name of the operation: “Busted by the Bus.”
“It’s going great,” Eagan police officer Aaron Machtemes, a department spokesman, said about halfway through the four-hour detail, adding that officers had stopped more than 30 vehicles. “A few times we’ve had people on their phones look up at the bus, see us and quick put their phone down and put it away. But it was too late. We pulled them over.”
Late last month, Apple Valley police took the effort to nab distracted drivers to new heights. Using a city boom truck, a uniformed officer was perched high above the Pilot Knob Road and 140th Street intersection as if working on a light pole.
The 12-hour detail spread over two days resulted in 40 people getting popped — mostly for distracted driving, but a few for not wearing a seatbelt and for speeding, Sgt. Dave Virden said Wednesday.
Game on! You’ll see our officers out today as we impact distracted driving in the city. We’re getting creative…stay tuned for the #vra #eyesinthesky pic.twitter.com/JwgA850VzZ
— Apple Valley Police (@AppleValleyPD) March 25, 2019
One guy in a work van told an officer he was surfing the web for a new truck. Another guy was pulled over in a work vehicle that had a sticker on the dash that read, “No cellphone usage.”
“It really is amazing,” Virden said. “Here you are in this huge boom truck, basically stuck out over the intersection, and people just don’t even see or recognize you because they’re so into their phone.”
Drivers need to “put down their distractions” and pay better attention, especially when around school buses, Machtemes said.
School bus drivers say vehicles passing them while their stop arm is extended and red lights are flashing are a daily occurrence, Machtemes said, adding that many of these lawbreakers seem to be distracted behind the wheel.
Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District makes approximately 8,800 stops a day and sees approximately 8 to 18 violations in each day, Machtemes said.
Eagan’s enforcement comes about two weeks after the Legislature passed a bill aimed at keeping cellphones out of drivers’ hands. The so-called “hands-free” bill, which will become law Aug. 1, carries a $50 fine for the first violation and $275 after that.
In Minnesota, motorists traveling in any direction must stop at least 20 feet from a school bus that is displaying red flashing lights and a stop arm on an undivided road. In August 2017, the fine for violating the law increased to $500 from $300.
Distracted driving is a factor in one out of five crashes in Minnesota, according to the Department of Public Safety. It has contributed to an average of 59 traffic deaths annually between 2013 and 2018.
The state’s “No Texting” law forbids drivers from reading or sending texts, checking emails and accessing the web while moving or when at stoplights or stop signs.
And the number of citations police doled out continues climb, according to DPS. In 2018, police statewide issued 9,545 citations, a 30 percent increase over 2017 and whopping 459 percent jump since 2012, when texting-while-driving enforcement began in earnest.
Stories of distracted driving go way beyond glancing at phones and sending texts.
One of the more notorious ones came from Eagan in 2016 and involved a man pulled over on Dodd Road for swerving and driving 15 mph below the speed limit. In squad dash-cam video that went viral, the man was heard admitting to an officer he was reading a James Patterson novel on his tablet computer.
Just last month, in Apple Valley, a man in his 20s went off the road and ended up on a baseball field near the high school after he told an officer was eating a burger in one hand and using Snapchat on his phone on the other.
Luckily, no one was hurt, Virden said.
Boom truck detail will make another appearance, Virden said, but he wouldn’t say exactly when. Officers will also be on bikes and roll up to cars at red lights to “catch them in the act,” he said.
Friendly reminder to not be eating a burger with your left hand, Snapchating on your phone with your right hand, and speeding or you may end up like this driver. Thankfully no one was injured #FridayThoughts #DistractedDriving pic.twitter.com/4XKhGbylEn
— Apple Valley Police (@AppleValleyPD) March 29, 2019