The Technique for Avoiding Police Detection: “Cop Drop”
BY QUINCY ORHAI
The driver of the SUV turns the corner in downtown Bozeman and sees the patrol car ahead in the oncoming lane. Instantly, the cell phone pressed to the drivers ear drops to his lap. As the officer drives by, the motorist switches to speaker phone, and the conversation continues.
Bozeman’s ban on cell phone use while driving, now over a year old, is being ignored by many of the city’s drivers, and the technique used to conceal the illegal activity has been named. It’s called Cop Drop, and the practice of instantly dropping a cell phone from the normal handheld position when a police officer appears is a common practice, accor-ding to Sergeant Travis Munter of the Bozeman Police Department.
In early March Munter found plenty of opportunities to issue citations when he began seeking violations in an unmarked car at 10th and Baxter Lane. Within 15 minutes he made 3 traffic stops, and after having made a total of 15 stops, he issued 10 citations. At $100 per citation, Sergeant Munter was earning his pay that day.
Why are Bozeman drivers willing to risk a $100 ticket to continue talking on their handsets? And are these drivers who flout city law and safety concerns reckless, or simply run-of-the-mill Bozemanites adapting to an inconvenient local ordinance?
Responding to the Pioneer recently, when asked about drivers disobeying the cell phone law, Sergeant Munter told us, “There are those who just don’t think talking and texting while driving is a real issue…who just don’t think anything bad will happen to them. Then there are those who just take the chance, just as they do with speeding or many other laws.”
Munter told us he could not necessarily say motorists who use cell phones while driving are also likely to speed and run stop signs, but that a common factor when it comes to accidents is a driver’s state of mind.
“Different people take different risks,” he said. “I don’t see any correlation between those who speed, run red lights, make improper turns or talk on their cell phones. I would argue driver impatience is a contributing factor in many crashes…”
Munter also told us, when asked, that it was possible drivers were simply unwilling or unable to pay the $15 to $100 for the cost of a headset. “It is a possibility,” he said. “However, would you put a price tag that small on traffic safety? There are studies out there indicating the conversation itself is distracting enough for some drivers to affect their ability to safely operate their vehicles. Ultimately, not making a call or text is the safest.”
Headsets, what’s more, do not necessarily satisfy the city’s definition of “hands-free” as written in the law prohibiting using a cell phone while driving.
“If you have to touch your phone to operate it, it is against the ordinance,” according to Munter.
Sergeant Munter told us he saw no gender violating the law more than the other, but that based on his enforcement efforts violators are typically under 50 years of age, and he sees as many texting or emailing while driving as talking on cell phones.
Obviously, cell phone use can be a distraction while driving, but is there any evidence to show that using a cell while driving causes accidents?
According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, there are three types of distracted driving: Visual: taking your eyes off the road; Manual: taking your hands off the wheel; and Cognitive: taking your mind off your driving.
Talking on a handheld cell phone while driving would appear to include all three types of distraction, as would smoking, eating, drinking, loading a CD, grooming, texting, reading maps, using a navigation system, or talking on a CB radio.
Of all these forms of distracted driving, only handheld cell phone use and texting are commonly outlawed. But are these laws actually reducing dangerous driving, or just another revenue source for local government?
Recent NCIPC studies (2011) indicate that “75 percent of U.S. drivers ages 18 to 29 reported that they talked on their cell phone while driving at least once in the past 30 days, and nearly 40 percent reported that they talk on their cell phone ‘regularly’ or ‘fairly often’ while driving. Fifty-two percent of U.S. drivers ages 18 to 29 reported texting or e-mailing while driving at least once in the last 30 days, and more than a quarter report texting or e-mailing ‘regularly’ or ‘fairly often’ while driving.”
In Bozeman, where the median age is 27, these statistics are clearly relevant. In a 2006 study, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that driver distraction and driving inattention may be involved in 78 percent of light-vehicle crashes. Yet a 2009 major study found that although reaching for or dialing a cell phone while driving was a high-risk task, talking and listening was not, suggesting that handheld phones are more dangerous. Texting was by far the most dangerous activity, increasing risks, compared to undistracted driving, by 23 times.
According to these studies, outlawing handheld cell phones in Bozeman and elsewhere will reduce accidents and save lives—if the law is obeyed.
The Montana Highway patrol reports that in Montana total crashes in 2011 where cell phones were a contributing circumstance have doubled since 2009, from approximately 0.6 of one percent to 1.2 percent of over 20,000 crashes per year. In that same time fatalities linked to cell phones have increased from 1 to 5 per year. This compares to alcohol related fatal crashes, which have decreased from 74 in 2009 to 50 in 2011.
So, why is the law being so blatantly ignored in Bozeman? Undoubtedly, a contributing factor is simply the high level of electronic connectivity in this day and age, especially among younger drivers, and with their frequent use of technology as a means of social interaction. Cell phones of various kinds, what’s more, offer immediate communication and online information, an attractive proposition for people of all ages with busy schedules.
In the words of Sergeant Munter: “I call it the microwave society. We have microwaves because we have to have the food right now and can’t wait…there is some reason people feel they have to answer or make that call or text while they drive. We all have voicemail on our phones, the texts don’t magically disappear—all this ‘vital’ information will be there when we get to our destinations.”
Even here in Montana, a state with a reputation for being laid back, every one or two, out of a hundred car crashes, is the result of distracted drivers on cell phones. That dangerous trend will continue, unless motorists choose not to communicate electronically while driving a ton steel at a lethal velocity.