Road Worrier

Trooper didn't see her - he was busy texting

Staff WriterMarch 30, 2010 

Lynn Westley didn't get the license number, but she noticed the occupation of a distracted driver who kept veering into her lane on the Raleigh Beltline, forcing her onto the shoulder.

He was a trooper with the state Highway Patrol.

He was busy texting. It was the morning rush-hour, and the trooper didn't seem to notice that he came close to running her off the road.

"He never even knew it," Westley, who works for a Raleigh mortgage lender, said by e-mail. "Had me on the shoulder, because he kept crossing the line into my lane. They need to set a good example!"

Lots of us have scary encounters with drivers who seem hypnotized by their cell phones. Like drunks, they drive too slowly or let their cars drift from side to side. And sometimes they crash.

That's why North Carolina has taken steps in the past few years to outlaw cell phone use for school bus drivers and drivers younger than 18, to bar drivers from looking at computers and video screens, and to ban texting and e-mailing for all drivers.

Well, almost all drivers.

The law does make exceptions for police, fire and emergency workers performing official duties. After all, they often need their laptops and other info-gadgets as they hurry down the highway.

"They're often getting critical information that can be important in saving an individual's life," said Sgt. Jeff Gordon, a Highway Patrol spokesman. "Sometimes the information coming across that screen is changing by the moment."

Gordon said he couldn't comment on the unidentified trooper who worried Westley on a recent Monday morning. He said troopers are admonished to be careful drivers. He agreed with Westley that officers must set good examples.

"Much care must be taken when we are doing this," Gordon said. "Now if I, Jeff Gordon, am going to be texting in the official duties of my job, I pull to the side of the road to conduct my business."

The state Administrative Office of the Courts says that as of March 10, state and local officers had ticketed 221 drivers since the no-texting law took effect Dec. 1. The counts include 10 in Wake County, seven in Orange County, four in Johnston County and two in Durham County. A texting-while-driving conviction carries a $100 fine.

North Carolina is one of 20 states that ban texting for drivers. Legislators are considering more steps to reduce driving distractions - an issue that voters tell pollsters they care about. The National Safety Council blames texting and phoning for 28 percent of all accidents.

The Joint House-Senate Transportation Oversight Committee is to meet with safety and law enforcement experts to discuss driving distractions at a public meeting scheduled for 2 p.m. April 29 in Room 544 of the Legislative Office Building.

"It's certainly an issue that the legislature is very interested in right now," said Arthur Goodwin, a senior research associate at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center in Chapel Hill, who plans to speak at the meeting. "I think legislators feel like they want to do more to reduce distracted driving, which is great."

Meanwhile, we can only hope police and other drivers will be careful.

Mike Stanford of Charlotte recently saw a Charlotte police car bounce off a curb because, he says, the officer was playing with his laptop while he drove.

"I say playing because when I pulled up next to him at the next red light, guess what was on the laptop screen: Facebook," Stanford said by e-mail. "So in that case, who should I call? 911?"

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