Cell phone users up ante for law breakers

Police seeing increased reporting of traffic violations by citizens with mobile phones

Posted: Wednesday, August 08, 2001

Soldotna Police Department Sgt. Robb Quelland estimated that at least 90 percent of the complaints Soldotna police receive about dangerous and erratic drivers now come via cellular telephones.

And that makes dangerous and drunken drivers much easier to catch and convict.

Before cell phones, he said, it often took 10 or 15 minutes for a motorist to find a phone to report a weaving car. With cell phones, motorists report erratic drivers immediately, he said. They often follow suspects and give blow-by-blow descriptions of dangerous and erratic driving.

"You don't have the 15-minute delay, and then you don't have to find a trooper or an officer to catch up with them. Now, they say, 'I'm passing Fred Meyer right now,'" he said.

Then, it is easy for police to intercept.

"The reporting rate has increased 100 percent, because it's not a burden," he said. "You can call on your way to the supermarket."

Soldotna Police Chief Shirley Warner said the immediacy makes a big difference, particularly if the caller keeps the suspect in sight.

"Because it doesn't take long for a car to disappear into a subdivision or up the highway," she said.

However, cell phone users should avoid putting themselves in the path of a dangerous driver or in situations likely to produce confrontations, she said. They should not break laws to keep up with a suspect.

"If they can keep an eye on them from a safe distance, so that person doesn't feel like they're being followed -- we don't want any other violations committed," she said.

Quelland said police cannot stop a car without a reason, and cell phone reports -- particularly from callers who are willing to identify themselves as witnesses -- often provide a basis for stopping a suspect.

Several months ago, he received a report of a teen-age driver speeding and passing on the shoulder between Sterling and Soldotna. The report came from an Anchorage motorist who called with a cell phone, then followed the teen to Soldotna.

"When I stopped him, the guy came up to me and said, 'I want to make a complaint,'" Quelland said.

Without that, it might have been difficult to charge the teen with reckless driving, "because it happened five or six miles out of town, and I didn't see it," he said. "Without the complainant, probably the best I could have done was to tell the kid not to drive that way."

However, Quelland advised witnesses against speeding, passing multiple cars or driving on sidewalks to keep up with an erratic driver.

"It's best for them to report what they saw. Be a good witness instead of being another problem," he said.

Warner said cell phones have improved reporting of other crimes.

"It makes a big difference," she said. "People have it at their fingertips. They can make a quick call. If they see bad driving behavior, a burglary in progress, a robbery in progress, people are going to use their cell phone and call it in. You're getting a description of what the suspect looks like and his direction of travel."

The Kenai Police Department frequently receives cell phone reports of drunken drivers, said Lt. Jeff Kohler.

"It's very useful, because instead of getting it five minutes after the fact from 'Quick Stop,' we're getting live commentary on what's occurring and where the vehicle is," he said. "... We're not in a situation where the caller loses contact or there's a long delay. We don't lose track of them as often."

Cell phone reports of domestic violence, suspicious people prowling parking lots and other crimes provide more timely information, increasing the chances that police will find suspects, he said.

Meanwhile, concern over the distractions cell phones cause for drivers recently led New York to pass a law effective Nov. 1 that bans holding a cell phone while driving. Several other states also are considering limits on the use of cell phones in cars.

But there is controversy over just how dangerous talking while driving can be.

An American Automobile Association-funded study by the University of North Carolina found that driver distraction was a factor in 8.3 percent of 32,303 traffic accidents between 1995 and 1999. However, cell phone use accounted for just 1.5 percent of those.

Roughly 29.4 percent of the distractions came from outside the vehicle. Adjusting radios and CD players accounted for 11.4 percent of distractions, conversations with other occupants 10.9 percent, adjusting vehicle or climate controls 2.8 percent, eating and drinking 1.7 percent and smoking .9 percent.

Kohler said anything that distracts the driver increases the risk of an accident.

"We encourage anyone, if they need to make a call with a hand-held cell phone, to pull over," he said.

Quelland said he personally finds it difficult to drive while talking on the phone and prefers to pull over to make calls. However, as long as the complainant drives safely, the benefits of reporting drunken or erratic drivers may outweigh the risk of using a cell phone, he said.

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