MARIETTA — If you noticed a construction worker peering into your car window at the intersection of Roswell Street and Cobb Parkway on Wednesday without further incident, you were likely following the rules of the road.
Three Marietta police officers went undercover, donning reflective vests and standing on the intersection’s raised medians to catch drivers on their phones.
The three officers peered into windows and radioed to more than 40 marked police cars stationed in the area as part of a joint law enforcement sting operation to enforce the state’s “hands-free” law that took effect last year.
Marietta and Cobb police officers cited 141 motorists in less than three hours, according to Marietta Officer Jared Rakestraw, who organized the multi-agency operation. Rakestraw said total citations reached 170.
The disguised officers reported seeing moving vehicles with drivers texting with both hands, driving with their knees, not wearing seat belts or a combination, according to Officer Chuck McPhilamy, a spokesman for the Marietta Police Department.
“We had multiple people run the red light in front of us. We had one car that was distracted — texting — and turned into oncoming traffic on a divided roadway and was driving the wrong direction on a one-way road,” McPhilamy said.
Most of the motorists never noticed the undercover officers standing only feet from their cars, he added.
Marietta Officer Kavon Samimi was one of the officers disguised as a construction worker. Samimi said he lost track of how many violations he saw when he looked into vehicles at the intersection. He said he saw at least one motorist sitting still at a green light while they scrolled through Facebook on their phone.
“Most of them are like that. Even though the light turns green, they’ll finish their text,” Samimi said.
Georgia’s hands-free law prohibits drivers in the state from holding their phones or having it anywhere on their body while driving, even if the driver is stopped at a light. The law allows pairing of a hands-free device, such as a Bluetooth earpiece or Bluetooth pairing through the vehicle’s speakers, to make or receive calls. It also allows the driver one touch to accept or decline a call and to mount phones on the windshield or center consoles.
The penalties for violating the law are administered on a sliding scale, McPhilamy said. The first offense will be waived by a traffic court if the motorist proves in court that they have installed Bluetooth capability since the violation. The second offense carries a penalty of $50 and one point on the driver’s license. The third offense is $100 and two points, and the fourth is $150 and three points.
McPhilamy said when the law took effect, local police departments observed a drop in distracted driving citations and crashes, but recently that number has steadily been climbing higher.
“As the months have turned into a year, we’re seeing a slight uptick in the number of accidents that relate to following too close and distracted (driving),” he said. “It’s a year later and we’ve slipped back into old habits.”
Both Marietta and Cobb police also receive calls from frustrated citizens requesting that officers enforce the hands-free law, said Sgt. Wayne Delk, a spokesman for the Cobb County Police Department. Delk said in a digital age, the use of smartphones while driving, among other distractions, is contributing to a “great number” of traffic collisions with and without fatalities.
Rakestraw said in about two hours, he pulled over at least eight drivers.
“I don’t think I had one that I pulled over that denied doing it,” Rakestraw said.
Social media users lashed out at the sting on Wednesday, saying the operation dupes the public and wastes taxpayer resources.
“And here I thought entrapment was illegal,” wrote Heather Lee.
“Waste of time and resources. Congrats,” added Toby Miller.
To those criticisms, McPhilamy said, the operation is for the safety of the drivers and others, adding that driving is a privilege, not a right. When drivers receive their license and get on the road, they are agreeing to abide by the rules of the road, he said.
“The government has stepped in and said, ‘Distracted driving is now killing people. We need to do something,’” McPhilamy said.
McPhilamy said the police officers and troopers who pull drivers over for texting while driving would rather not have to. But they will if it means saving someone’s life, he said.
“It only takes that split second when you’re driving down the road to drastically change someone’s life,” McPhilamy said. “We’re working together with all of these other agencies to try and remind the public … This law is in place to save their life, to protect them.”
McPhilamy said there will likely be more of the disguised officers looking for infractions in the future.
Other citations issued during the operation included drivers littering and not wearing seat belts.
Participating law enforcement departments included Cobb County Police, Cobb County traffic officers, Georgia State Patrol and Marietta traffic officers, among others.