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Published August 08 2012

Fargo's first sting for texting drivers yields 17 tickets

FARGO - Officers wrote $100 tickets to 17 people for texting while driving this week during the Fargo Police Department’s first such sting operation since North Dakota’s ban on the behavior took effect just over a year ago.

Lt. Joel Vettel said Fargo police haven’t decided whether to conduct additional stings.

“We’ll evaluate the success of the event and certainly talk about whether this is something we want to continue to do in the future,” Vettel said.

Officers look for texting drivers while on routine patrol, but this was the department’s first concentrated enforcement effort, said patrol Officer Mike Lovejoy, who played the role of spotter in the sting.

On Monday, Lovejoy sat in a nondescript city pool car at First Avenue North and University Drive, watching for texting behavior among drivers passing through or stopped at the intersection.

If he saw enough of the tell-tale signs – the driver looking down for an extended period of time, using both thumbs to type more than 10 digits or typing without eventually holding the phone up to their ear – he radioed ahead to one of three police cars with a description of the vehicle to pull over.

Some of those who were stopped denied texting while driving and voluntarily showed officers their phones, Lovejoy said.

“Some people were able to prove that they weren’t in fact texting, which is a good thing, but obviously their attention was distracted at the time that I witnessed them,” he said.

Officers issued 10 tickets for texting while driving on Monday and another seven on Tuesday, when Lovejoy set up in a street department vehicle parked in the median at the Interstate 29 intersections with Main Avenue and 32nd Avenue South.

Three officers worked the sting for about three to four hours each day during the late morning and early afternoon, Vettel said. Federal grant money paid for the effort, he said.

North Dakota’s texting ban took effect Aug. 1, 2011, but Fargo police didn’t begin citing drivers for the violation until Jan. 1 of this year, after the city passed its own ordinance so officers wouldn’t have to file long-form complaints through district court.

Since Jan. 1, Fargo officers have issued 93 citations for texting while driving, including the 17 issued Monday and Tuesday, Vettel said.

Moorhead police haven’t conducted stings similar to Fargo’s, but Minnesota has funded overtime shifts focused on distracted driving in the past couple of years, Sgt. Deric Swenson said. It’s become more common for officers to cite drivers for texting while driving since Minnesota’s ban took effect in August 2008, he said.

West Fargo Lt. Duane Sall said he’s not aware of police there issuing any tickets for texting while driving since North Dakota’s law took effect, and there are no targeted enforcement efforts planned. He said it’s a difficult crime for patrol officers to catch.

“I think we all see it while we’re in our personal cars, but it’s hardest to see in our squad cars” because drivers often see police coming before they can get close enough to observe it, he said.

Lovejoy was satisfied with the number of tickets issued during this week’s effort, though he said he observed a lot more activity that may have been texting but wasn’t cited.

“Obviously we have a ways to go to make the public a little more aware of this,” he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528


North Dakota, Minnesota texting-while-driving laws

•Where is it illegal?

Minnesota and North Dakota are among 39 states (as well as the District of Columbia) that have banned texting while driving for all drivers, according to www.distraction.gov, an official U.S. government website. North Dakota was the 31st state to outlaw the behavior.

•Can you be pulled over for it?

Yes. Texting while driving is a primary offense in both Minnesota and North Dakota, meaning officers don’t need another reason to pull you over if they suspect you’re doing it.

•How much is the fine?

Violators are fined $100 in North Dakota. In Minnesota, they’re charged a $135 penalty, which consists of a $50 base fine, $75 surcharge and $10 law library fee.

•What’s illegal?

In Minnesota, it’s illegal for drivers of all ages to compose, read or send electronic messages or access the Internet on a wireless device when the vehicle is in motion or part of traffic. As in North Dakota, that includes being stopped in traffic or at a light. The law doesn’t apply to devices permanently affixed to the vehicle or global positioning or navigation systems.

In North Dakota, state law says the operator of a motor vehicle that is part of traffic may not use a wireless communications device to compose, read or send an electronic message, which includes texting, emailing, instant messaging and searching the Web. It doesn’t include selecting or dialing a phone number, retrieving voicemail, using a GPS or accessing a music player. Texting while driving also is allowed in emergency situations to report a traffic accident, medical emergency or serious traffic hazard or to prevent a crime.