Armed with federal money, police from more than two dozen departments around the state are poised to launch a no-texting-while-driving campaign that will have motorists reaching for their wallets instead of their cell phones.
Dubbed "U drive. U text. U pay," the initiative kicks off Wednesday in at least 25 towns and cities, from Vernon to Norwich to Stamford. Connecticut is the only state in the nation that got this type of grant to deter distracted driving, said Aaron Swanson of the state Department of Transportation.
Among other things, the $2.3 million grant will cover three weeks of stepped-up enforcement in September and another blitz in April, which is Distracted Driving Awareness Month. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is paying 75 percent of the cost of the program and the municipalities are paying 25 percent, said Swanson, from the DOT's highway safety office.
Connecticut got the money because of its strict distracted driving laws and steady enforcement, Swanson said. While state law allows adult drivers to talk on cell phones equipped with hands-free devices, it does not allow drivers to hold cell phones in their hands while the car is being operated — even if it's sitting at a red light, Swanson said.
Misusing a cell phone while behind the wheel can be expensive. The fine for first-time offenders is $150, he said. Second-time offenders will pay a $300 fine; if you're caught a third time, the fine rises to $500.
The campaign will focus mostly on texting while driving, which is particularly hazardous in three ways, Swanson said: Drivers are not only thinking about something other than their driving, but are touching the phone instead of the wheel and are looking at something other than the road.
"It's one of the most dangerous things you can do behind the wheel," he said.
And it's not just teens who use cell phones while driving, he said. People of all ages and incomes drive while distracted.
"Everybody's guilty of this," Swanson said.
Sgt. Ken Miller of Farmington — one of the participating towns — said "all kinds of people" text while behind the wheel. "Everybody's doing it."
Farmington plans to set up four checkpoints over the three-week period, Miller said. Each will involve two officers acting as spotters — one on each side of the road — who will peer into cars to find offending drivers. The officers will relay information about the drivers to other officers down the street, who will signal them to pull over, he said.
Connecticut had two previews of the upcoming enforcement campaign, both for research purposes. The first comprised four waves of enforcement in 2010 and 2011. The campaign took place in Hartford, East Hartford, West Hartford and on capital-area highways, and in addition to raising awareness was intended to determine whether such enforcement can change driver behavior.
"It worked," Swanson said.
The second set of enforcement efforts recently concluded in the Danbury area. Police in towns in that area aimed to answer another question — what are the best ways to find those who text while driving?
Officers and state troopers experimented with different ways to stop drivers, either by doing roving patrols or the spotter method of relaying descriptive information about violators. Police who stood on a hill or sat in a sports utility vehicles found it easier to see into cars, Swanson said. Motorcycle cops found that they, too, could spot violators more readily, he said.
Miller has peered into passing cars from a resident's front porch. He said he's thinking of putting spotters on the Route 6 overpass above Route 10.
No matter what techniques are used, Swanson said, motorists should assume they're being watched.
"Connecticut's a small state, and chances are, you're going to drive through one of these places," he said.