Police employing unique methods to crack down on texting drivers

Convictions for texing and driving in Georgia since 2010, when law enacted

2010: 79

2011: 511

2012: 1,271

2013: 2,311

2014: 2,963

2015 (as of June 25): 1,264

SOURCE: Georgia Department of Driver Services

Marietta Police’s latest undercover operation is all about saving lives, they say. But to some citizens, it seems to be nothing but a duplicitous money grab.

On Wednesday, officers posing as construction workers were dispatched to Cobb Parkway at Roswell Road. Their aim: To spot and ticket those texting from the driver’s seat.

It was the department’s second time conducting the sting, and Marietta Police Officer Nick Serkedakis says it won’t be the last.

“The whole thing started when we received data that fatalities were skyrocketing and a lack of seat belts and texting were major contributors,” Serkedakis says. “So we, as a traffic unit, asked ourselves, ‘What are we going to do about it?’ At first we didn’t have an answer for it.”

Texting while driving has been illegal in Georgia since 2010, and while convictions have risen significantly every year since, it’s still a tough charge to prove.

Before the undercover operation, tickets issued for texting were “random and spare,” Serkedakis says.

The unorthodox plan allowed officers to spot offenders close up. On the road, it can be tough to discern whether someone is actually texting or, say, turning their radio dial, police say.

The faux construction workers, who spent about two-and-a-half hours on the road total, issued 90 citations, about half for texting. Serkedakis says that’s as many tickets as they give out typically in a week.

“This isn’t about your safety. It’s about revenue,” says Will Mullis of Atlanta. He added that he often uses an app on his phone to navigate his way around traffic. “It’s absurd to think I’d get a ticket for checking directions.”

Checking for directions isn’t necessarily illegal, but “writing, sending or reading any text-based communication is,” Serkedakis says. That could encompass typing a street name into your phone’s GPS.

“Once you press send you’ve transmitted data,” he says.

According to the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, distracted driving has led to a increase in crashes and fatalities on Georgia’s roads. Injuries caused by distracted motorists nearly tripled from 2009-14, and the number of fatalities in such accidents rose 73 percent over that time period.

Those numbers come even as law enforcement agencies — some more than others — are cracking down on texting drivers. Since the state law was enacted, no municipality has been tougher on texters than Gwinnett County.

More than half the state’s convictions have come there, with one Gwinnett police officer accounting for approximately one-quarter of the state’s total.

“Most of the tickets written by GCPD were written by Motors Unit officers,” Jake Smith, a Gwinnett police spokesman, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year. “Motorcycles give the officers a unique vantage point. It’s easier for them to see down into vehicles from atop a motorcycle. Also, many people don’t immediately notice the person on the motorcycle next to them is a police officer.”

In many of the cases Wednesday, drivers pleaded ignorance, Serkedakis says. Smyrna commuter Kris Hudson, who was not ticketed, says that while he agrees texting while driving should be illegal, he doesn’t understand how doing so while stopped at a traffic signal endangers anyone.

“That is like saying someone who drinks will also drink and drive,” Hudson says. “Some people do but not all.”

Georgia law is a bit murky about what is and isn’t acceptable, says attorney Esther Panitch, who wrote about the texting ban when it was passed by the General Assembly. Navigation devices are exempted in the code section, which specifically prohibits accessing Internet data.

As for Marietta’s undercover operation, “it’s sneaky but I don’t think it’s illegal,” Panitch says.

“If the point is to deter people from doing it, have the officers out in force, in uniform,” she says. “If the goal is to trap people, then go undercover.”

But not all drivers are opposed.

“I’m totally OK with this,” says David Warner, who lives in the Old Fourth Ward. “When I would ride MARTA along (Georgia) 400, I would watch drivers change lanes blindly since their eyes were glued to their phones.”