Police use homeless man disguise to catch drivers texting

An officer disguised as a homeless man tips off other officers to drivers using phones behind the wheel. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
(WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
(WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
A Montgomery County police officer verifies a driver’s license and registration after a distracted driving stop. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
Montgomery County police officers write $70 for texting while driving, and $83 for violating hands-free law (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
Officers are alerted by the decoy about which cars to pull over (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
At times there were 10 vehicles pulled over for distracted driving on River Road (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

BETHESDA — The man standing hunched on the median of River Road in Bethesda holding a hand-lettered cardboard sign and white plastic cup draws little attention from unsuspecting commuters.

His sign reads “I am not homeless. I am a Montgomery County police officer looking for cell phone texting violations.”

Dozens of commuters Tuesday morning traveling eastbound on River Road learned an expensive safety lesson as they approached Goldsboro Road.

The undercover officer, equipped with a police radio and wearing a body camera, tipped off other officers to the offending car’s description, when he witnessed someone illegally using a smartphone behind the wheel.

“You cannot text while driving, you cannot have your phone in your hand while you’re driving, you cannot have the phone to your ear while you’re driving,” says Montgomery County police Sgt. Phillip Chapin.

Chapin and approximately eight officers conducted a distracted driving enforcement detail early Tuesday, writing dozens of tickets to drivers who felt compelled to divide their attention between driving and using their phone.

“If you’re using your thumbs, texting, while driving down the road it’s totally distracting, because you have to look down to see what you’re typing,” says Chapin.

Other officers on the detail say texting while driving is more difficult to prove in court, so they often cite violators for not using hands-free devices.

“When you have your phone to your ear you’re distracted because you only have one hand on the wheel, and it’s hard to react,” says Chapin.

A ticket for texting while driving is $70,  using a phone while driving is $83, says Chapin.

Once they are waved over, Chapin says few drivers dispute they were using their phones behind the wheel.

“Not too many deny it — they know they’re doing it. And some people say ‘thank you,'” he says.

During the two-hour enforcement, police issued a total of 56 traffic citations and 22 warnings for the following violations:

  • Using hands to use phone while driving: 31 citations, 9 warnings
  • Texting while driving: 4 citations, 4 warnings
  • Driving on shoulder: 17 citations,  7 warnings
  • Negligent driving: 1 citation
  • Driving without a license: 1 citation, 2 warnings
  • Failure to display registration: 1 citation
  • Displaying a license plate cover: 1 citation
Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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