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Will police ‘ghostriders’ scare away distracted driving?

July 26, 2017 by Steven M. Gursten

TIA chief Jim Santilli says Operation Ghostrider effective at preventing distracted driving injuries; Rep. Howrylak says program can deter texting while driving

Operation Ghostrider Distracted Driving

Police in Michigan are trying to make themselves as invisible as possible — “ghostly” you might say — to stop distracted driving.

In “Operation Ghostrider,” which is a statewide distracted driving enforcement initiative coordinated by the Transportation Improvement Association (TIA) and funded by the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning, a “ghost” police officer surveils traffic from an unmarked car and reports distracted drivers to uniformed officers in marked patrol vehicles to make the traffic stop.

TIA Chief Executive Officer Jim Santilli told Michigan Auto Law what Operation Ghostrider was intended to accomplish:

“The #1 goal is to prevent injuries.”

Based on enforcement actions that took place in April and June along M-59 in Macomb and Oakland counties, Santilli said he thought Operation Ghostrider had proved to be “very effective” and he was optimistic that there might be a follow-up distracted-driving crackdown in the fall.

The TIA reported in a June 14, 2017, press release, that during just one “10-hour period, 14 law enforcement officers [working as part of Operation Ghostrider] conducted more than 158 traffic stops resulting in 133 citations, 48 warnings, and 3 arrests.”

Santilli observed:

“The initiative has changed people’s driving behavior, but to make the sure the changes continue long-term, distracted driving enforcement needs to continue.”

Building on his comment in the TIA’s June 2017 press release that “[a]s drivers, we need to recognize that a distracted driver has the same blatant disregard for human life as a drunk driver,” Santilli emphasized that people must remember their “personal responsibility” to protect not only their own lives, but also the lives of those driving around them.

As an auto accident attorney who has helped many people whose lives have been turned upside down and destroyed by distracted drivers and drivers who are texting and driving, I’m 1000% in support of law enforcement initiatives such as “Operation Ghostrider.”

How big of a problem is distracted driving?

Distracted driving is a huge and growing problem everywhere, especially Michigan. I drove this point home in my blog post, “Distracted driving fatalities up 50% since 2015 and 200% since 2014.”

Importantly, Rep. Martin Howrylak (R-Troy) has decided to address this threat to public safety head-on by introducing a distracted driving bill — House Bill 4466 — which would:

  • Ban forms of dangerous driving — such as using a phone to text, conduct Internet searches, watch videos and play games — that go beyond texting-while-driving.
  • Impose harsher penalties for distracted drivers: A $250 fine for first offenders; a $500 fine for second or subsequent offender with 1 point on their driving record; and 2 points on the record of third or subsequent offenders.

Not surprisingly, Rep. Howrylak is a supporter of Operation Ghostrider. In fact, he told Michigan Auto Law the following:

“Distracted driving is a growing problem on our roadways and the consequences can be deadly … The law enforcement community uses initiatives like Operation Ghostrider to help educate drivers and deter dangerous behavior like texting and driving before it leads to a devastating car accident.”

What kind of tickets can be written for distracted driving?

The irony of a distracted driving crackdown like Operation Ghostrider is that Michigan doesn’t actually have a law that specifically bans “distracted driving” — unless and until Rep. Howrylak’s HB 4466 becomes law.

Instead, we have a ban on texting while driving that applies to all motorists, including drivers of trucks, commercial vehicles and school buses. (MCL 257.602b(1) and (2))

Plus, we have a hand-held cellphone ban for truck drivers and school bus drivers and a cellphone ban for teen drivers.

Additionally, it seems, at least, theoretically possible that a distracted driver — depending on what he or she is doing and the danger associated with the behavior — could be ticketed for “careless driving” (MCL 257. 626b) and/or “reckless driving” (MCL 257.626).

Or a stopped driver may drive off with only a warning.

How exactly does Operation Ghostrider go after distracted driving?

In its April 25, 2017, press release, the Transportation Improvement Association announced the launch of “Operation Ghostrider,” whose “goal is to reduce crashes.”

The TIA described the new distracted driving enforcement program as follows:

It consists of unmarked “spotter” vehicle with a “ghost” law enforcement officer as a passenger who, upon “observ[ing] dangerous behavior, such as distracted driving or red-light running, [will] radio a fully marked law enforcement unit to initiate a traffic stop.”

Isn’t there a less sneaky way to stop distracted driving?

Of course, as with any stepped-up law enforcement action, some people have reacted with skepticism about the fairness of such a sting operation.

But Michigan State Police First Lt. Dale Hinz told MLive in a May 1, 2017, story:

“If what we’re doing seems to be sneaky or underhanded, it’s not meant to be … Our biggest concern is driver safety. We’re not trying to trick anyone.”

How can people help themselves to stop distracted driving?

First, there’s self-control. People can refrain from accessing their cellphone while they’re driving by turning it off, putting it out of reach in the back seat or locking it in the trunk.

Second, people can use technology to help them fight their urge to use cellphone technology while they’re driving.

Significantly, people could use the “Do Not Disturb While Driving” feature of the new iOS 11 iPhone, which disables the phone from receiving and/or sending out texting messages.

Additionally, people could use one of the many anti-distracted driving apps that are currently available.

What must people know about distracted driving?

Wherever and whenever I can, I use my experience as a car accident attorney to help people understand the real, true and deadly dangers of distracted driving.

I emphasize this to juries, to judges, to lawyers (at the national legal seminars where I frequently teach about legal issues and litigation) and in my Auto Law blog. Below is just a small sampling of the information I provide about why distracted driving must stop:

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