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April brings crackdown on cellphone use while driving

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Norwich — By mid-April, police departments across the state are conducting distracted-driving enforcement initiatives, focusing particularly on those who illegally are using their cellphones.

Though the five-hour overtime enforcement shifts aren’t the worst, they’re not necessarily coveted, either. 

“No one likes to give out tickets,” Officer Richard Cannata said. “Especially around the holidays.”

But, he pointed out, raising awareness about the dangers cellphones pose through enforcement is important. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, crashes involving distracted drivers killed 3,477 people and injured about 391,000 people in 2015.

On Friday, Cannata was part of a three-person team stationed on state Route 2, one of three primary areas authorized by a state Department of Transportation/NHTSA grant that funds the overtime pay.

A spotter in an unmarked car kept her eyes peeled for drivers on their phones. On either side of her, officers in marked cars sat in wait, ready to go should she call out targets such as a black Chrysler heading south, or a blue Subaru driving north.

Despite the relatively low speed limit in the area, it was tough and somewhat dizzying at times to identify why drivers’ hands were near their faces. Some were eating ice cream, or a sandwich. Others drank from coffee cups. Still more simply were resting their heads on their hands.

“We try to be 99 percent sure it’s a phone before we pull someone over,” said Cannata, a four-and-a-half-year veteran of the department who was focusing on southbound traffic Friday.

Since Connecticut enacted its first hands-free law in 2005 — it has enacted several similar pieces of legislation since — Cannata said he’s noticed drivers trying to be slier with their cellphone use. Where they used to hold their phones up in plain view, they now are more likely to have them near their laps. Or, if they do hold the phones closer to their faces, they’re using speakerphone, said Cannata, his eyes trained on each car that passed.

Using speakerphone, he noted, still is a violation of the law.

Minutes later, Cannata perked up and snapped his car into drive.

“It’s easy when the case is purple,” he said half to himself, catching a driver on her phone before she reached the spotter.

As Cannata spoke to the driver through her passenger side window, she explained she only had been on the phone a minute or two, and insinuated Cannata caught her doing something she rarely, if ever, did.

It’s something Cannata said he hears often.

“They’ll say, ‘it wasn’t a 20-minute conversation, just two.’ Or, ‘I was just checking a message, not texting,’” Cannata said.

Lots of times, drivers will say they were chatting with their spouses about plans for the night, or a babysitter that fell through.

“I can understand where they’re coming from,” Cannata said. “But whether it’s important to you or not, it’s still a distraction.”

The first three hours of Friday’s five-hour shift were relatively uneventful, although at one point a crash happened in front of the officer catching northbound traffic. As the clock approached 5 p.m., the number of drivers using their phones increased markedly.

Under the law, a driver’s first offense comes with a $150 fine. From there, it increases.

Throughout the month, many southeastern Connecticut departments are participating in the campaign, dubbed "U Drive. U Text. U Pay." Those include but aren't limited to Norwich, Groton Town and Waterford.

At spotter on Friday, Juvenile Detective Julie St. Jean, an 18-year veteran of the Norwich department, said it’s shocking how many people take it personally when they get a ticket. It’s not personal, she emphasized — it’s part of an officer’s job, which is to keep drivers and those around them safe.

“If (this campaign) will change one person’s behavior, then we’ve done our job,” St. Jean said.

l.boyle@theday.com

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