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‘Ghost riders’ on the lookout for distracted drivers in Michigan

Mock up of man using mobile smart phone inside a car.
The Transportation Improvement Association along with the Michigan State Police are implementing “Operation Ghost Rider” to discourage motorists from distracted driving. (Shutterstock)
  • Operation Ghost Rider is a weeklong operation to discourage distracted driving 
  • Officers in unmarked cars look for drivers who are using their phones then flag officers in marked cars to make traffic stops 
  • The operation is the first of several weeklong initiatives planned throughout the year

Michigan law enforcement agencies have partnered with the Transportation Improvement Association to crack down on distracted driving. 

The initiative, called Operation Ghost Rider, uses officers in unmarked vehicles to spot distracted drivers then radio another officer in a marked vehicle to conduct a traffic stop. 

Operation Ghost Rider started Monday and runs for a week. The operation began in 2017 and has been implemented annually since. It is the first of several initiatives that the Transportation Improvement Association has planned for this year aimed at discouraging distracted driving.


“Our goal, ideally, would be that we have no violations but, unfortunately, after years and years of public education and trying to show the public that distracted driving is a dangerous behavior that's killing and injuring people on our roadways, unfortunately, people are still engaging and taking their eyes off the road and hands off the wheel,” said Jim Santilli, CEO of the association. 

During April, which is Distracted Driving Awareness Month, the group focused on educating drivers through community events and billboards about the dangers of distracted driving. 


Several county and local agencies across the state are participating in the Operation Ghost Rider, Santilli said. 

“The amount of people getting killed and injured on our roadways is very unacceptable,” he said. “Unfortunately I've had to speak to a lot of parents, for example, who have lost their children from distracted driving.” 

‘Worse than drunk driving’

Jim Freybler, 57 of Grand Rapids became an advocate against distracted driving after his son Jacob died in a car accident in 2018 because he was texting and driving. 

“To me, it's worse than drunk driving or being under the influence of some controlled substance because not everybody does that. Not everybody is a drunk driver. Not everybody is a drug driver,” Freybler told Bridge Michigan. 

“Everybody has a cell phone, and since COVID everybody has been on their cell phones constantly because of social media, work.”

Last year Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a bill that outlawed driving while manually using a cell phone. It prohibits motorists from holding or using a mobile device to send or receive a phone call or text message, view, record, or send a video and read, or post to a social networking site.

The law applies to drivers operating a vehicle, so holding a mobile device at a stop sign or red light is also illegal. 

Violators can face a $100 fine and/or 16 hours of community service for their first offense and a $250 fine and/or 24 hours of community service for second-time offenders. 

“The amount per fine should be higher and should be comparable with careless driving because you are careless,” Freybler said. He believes that first offenders should be fined between $250 and $500. “Points should be given right away because we have to change the behavior. People need to be focused on the driving.” 

In 2023, there were 15,136 distracted driving-involved crashes in Michigan and 59 fatal accidents, according to data provided by the Michigan State Police. That was down slightly compared with 15,441 crashes and 53 fatal accidents in 2022.  Distracted driving-related crashes and fatalities have been on a decline since 2018, MSP data shows. 


“We look for distracted driving all the time, regardless of these but since April is Distracted Driving Month, we want to bring special awareness to it because we know that we had over 15,000 motor vehicle crashes in 2022,” said Mike Shaw, a state police public information officer.

Despite the hands-free distracted driving law and the drop in distracted-driving-involved accidents, law enforcement officers say they still see too many motorists using their mobile devices behind the wheel. 

“We want to change driving behavior. Some of that involves a warning, sometimes involves a citation depending on the driver and what their record looks like and exactly what they were doing behind the wheel,” Shaw said.

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