CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — Trooper Gordon Roberts sat behind a pair of Ray-Bans, a steering wheel and about 15 different gauges as he merged onto Interstate 75. He looked out the driver's side window and scanned across the three lanes in front of him, left to right, looking for his first catch of the day.
“We should be able to nab some people here,” he said in an accent forged through a childhood in Rhea County.
From the cab of a Tennessee Highway Patrol-owned tractor-trailer, he looked down into cars and minivans and smaller trucks, searching for seat belts that rested unbuckled, fingers that tapped text messages and beer can tabs that popped open.
Roberts snaked his way up and down the Chattanooga highways, picked out lawbreakers and relayed the information to other troopers, who chased the drivers down in patrol cars and passed out tickets.
Lt. John Harmon asked Roberts to drive the semi as part of “Stay Alive on 75,” a THP promotion to raise awareness about crashes on the highway. The promotion ends this week.
“The Tennessee Highway Patrol will be utilizing every resource available in the Chattanooga district to make our highways safer,” Harmon said in a statement.
The stepped-up enforcement of highway laws came as a new study, released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showed most U.S. drivers reported talking on their cellphone and about one in three read or sent text or email messages when driving.
The study's finding that more than two-thirds of U.S. drivers reported cellphone use and a third had reported texting or emailing is consistent with previous studies.
A national telephone survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety conducted in 2010 found that 69 percent of drivers had used a cellphone while driving and 24 percent had texted while driving during the previous 30 days, The Associated Press reported. Similar estimates have been reported from surveys carried out by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
“To me this says we still have a huge distracted driving problem. It's a cultural problem, and we haven't convinced the country yet that this is a serious issue,” said Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, told the AP.
Roberts, who usually steers a motorcycle or standard patrol car in Meigs, McMinn and Rhea counties, is one of 97 troopers statewide who hold a commercial driver's license that allow them to use a semi truck. On Wednesday, Roberts spotted seven people breaking the laws below him.
But Thursday morning was quiet. He thought he saw a Volkswagen driver texting, but he wasn't sure; maybe she was just dialing a number. He saw someone else fidgeting with his phone at a stoplight, but no troopers were nearby.
Around 10:45, though, he caught someone in East Brainerd. He was sure. The man cruised right past Roberts on the left, phone in front of face. Roberts reached for the speaker to a THP radio.
“Hey, lieutenant,” Roberts said.
“Go ahead,” a voice cracked through the speakers.
“There's a maroon F-250 coming up on exit 3A,” Roberts said. “Northbound in the left lane. He's texting.”
About two minutes later, the driver exited toward Hamilton Place mall, and a patrol call followed, lights flashing. It was Roberts' first ticket Thursday; there would be seven more.
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