PLATTSBURGH — People around here who text or talk while driving may not know who is watching them.
“We’ll find some (public) driveway, and pretend we’re pulling out,” Trooper Joseph Liberty said as he sat behind the wheel of State Police Troop B’s Concealed Identity Traffic Enforcement (CITE) vehicle.
“We’ll just sit there and watch the cars go by.”
The CITE car is an unmarked SUV that sits higher off the ground than most larger cars, enabling the trooper to see down into the cars of motorists to determine whether they are using a handheld electronic device, Liberty explained.
It joined the force earlier this year and is sent out on cellphone details.
Many accidents and deaths are caused by drivers who are distracted by electronic devices, Liberty said.
“When you’re driving on the road and you’re not wearing your seat belt, you’re taking your life in your own hands,” he said. “When you’re driving on the road and you’re talking on a cellphone, you’re taking everyone’s lives in your hands.”
Sending or receiving a text message takes a driver’s eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, which, at 55 mph, is the equivalent of driving the length of a football field blind, according to the U.S. government’s website for distracted driving.
Liberty spotted his first violation in a Volkswagen Jetta with New York plates and pulled out into traffic, accelerating rapidly to catch the car.
That’s when drivers around the CITE vehicle realize what it really is; the lights are placed around the interior of the car and aren’t visible from the outside.
“This is lit up like a Christmas tree,” Liberty said.
The woman driving the Jetta told him she was changing the song on her phone, which was synced to play music through her car’s speakers.
But even if motorists aren’t texting or talking on their phone, it’s still the same traffic violation: driving while using a portable electronic device.
It was mostly sunny and 77 degrees as Liberty took Press-Republican staff on a ride-along — perfect weather for optimal visibility.
But even when it’s dark or the weather isn’t clear, troopers are always on the lookout for distracted drivers.
“You can see the glow of that electronic device (at night). It’s real easy,” Liberty said.
“Cellphone tickets are big now,” Liberty said.
Starting June 1 of this year, New York state upped the penalties for those who drive while using a cellphone or any other electronic device that’s not hands-free.
Now, instead of a conviction putting three points on a license, drivers are penalized five points.
And the licenses of probationary drivers or drivers ages 16 to 18 are suspended for 60 days following their first conviction.
Regardless of the license classification, drivers’ licenses will be suspended and a revocation hearing held if 11 points are accumulated within 18 months.
The minimum fine for a first offense is $50, while the maximum is $150, according to the State Department of Motor Vehicles.
On top of that, there’s a $93 surcharge.
‘EVERYONE HAS AN EXCUSE’
Despite the stricter law, Liberty said, there are plenty of drivers on the road who talk or text while driving — far more than he could possibly catch.
But he has certain spots around the Plattsburgh area that he has had luck finding a good number of offenders, he said.
A few minutes after the Jetta eased back into traffic, Liberty pulled over a man in a Mercedes.
The driver told him he was talking on his cellphone because his secretary had called him to wish him well on his last day of work before retirement.
Everyone has an excuse, the trooper said.
“(But) unless it’s life or death, it isn’t a good one.”
And he usually knows when someone was using a cellphone but won’t admit to it.
“Generally, we hear lies a lot, and we know when someone is lying.”
DOZENS OF TICKETS
Liberty started his shift with a full roll of ticket paper in the printer in the CITE vehicle.
“We’re dangerously close to running out of paper,” he said a few minutes after 4:30 p.m.
But he had another roll ready.
That day, Liberty wrote 28 traffic tickets — 20 of those were for unlawful use of an electronic device.
“The CITE vehicle has been an enormous asset,” Plattsburgh-based Sgt. James Bousquet said.
Email Felicia Krieg: firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: @FeliciaKrieg