Michigan law bans phone use while driving. That’s news to many, police say
- Police officers in unmarked vehicles are on the lookout for distracted drivers
- The crackdown comes after state passed laws this year banning holding a phone while driving
- Awareness of the updated law is still low, officers say
Four months after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation making it illegal to hold a phone while driving, police throughout Michigan cracked down this week — and learned that many aren’t even aware of the new law.
“People are still, unfortunately, driving distracted with their cell phones,” said Derek Stansbury, traffic sergeant for the Shelby Township Police Department in Macomb County.
“A lot of people were more under the impression that you just can't text while driving.”
Stansbury was among many officers involved in this week’s “Operation Ghost Rider,” an effort by Michigan State Police and local agencies to cite motorists for distracted driving.
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The operation involved the use of officers in unmarked vehicles who watch for distracted drivers from the passenger seat. Once spotted, another identifiable officer was notified to conduct a traffic stop.
The initiative started Monday and concluded Wednesday. Jim Santilli, chief operating officer of the Transportation Improvement Agency, said the initiative will continue in more cities before the end of the year.
“We gave several months for the public to become aware of the new law,” he said. “Now, we're more on the enforcement aspect.”
The old law banned drivers from using their cell phones. The updated law prohibits holding or using a mobile device to make calls or texts, watch videos or read social media sites. The law also applies when drivers are at red lights or stop signs.
Violators could face a $100 fine and/or 16 hours of community service. Second-time offenders could be issued a $200 fine and/or 24 hours of community service.
Santilli said 100 citations were written in a single day this week, including one to a driver using a laptop. Another distracted motorist drove several miles before noticing police, Santilli said.
Drivers who use a hand-held device are four times as likely to get into a crash serious enough to cause injury and texting drivers are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“Studies indicate that typically when a driver is looking away when they're distracted, they're looking away for 4.6 of every 6 seconds,” the equivalent of traveling a football field blindfolded, Santilli added.
“If I asked you, for example, to get on a two lane road where you have traffic coming at you, drive 55 miles per hour, put a blindfold on and travel the length of a football field, you would think I'm crazy, but in reality, that's what people are doing.”
Participating police included Auburn Hills, Chesterfield Township, Clinton Township, Macomb County, Oakland County, Shelby Township, Sterling Heights, Troy and Utica.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Shelby Township conducted 32 traffic stops, wrote 29 citations, and issued three warnings.
“Most of the people, at least that we've come in contact with, they didn't even know about the new law,” Stansbury said.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 362,415 people were injured in crashes involving distracted drivers in 2021. In Michigan, distracted driving was blamed for 57 deaths in 2022.
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