Police Officer Ken Blass is a ticket-writing machine, and he’s proud of it.
Blass, who is a motorcycle officer in Framingham, Mass., has written an estimated 500 tickets a year for the past two years, mostly for distracted driving. His efforts have won him recognition from local media and AAA Northeast, which has named him as one of its “traffic heroes” in 2015 and 2016. He’s been called the busiest cop in New England for enforcing the law against distracted driving.
Blass, 50, could match those numbers again this year, though he said he’s a little off his best ticket-writing pace. His personal campaign against distracted driving comes as Massachusetts’ governor signaled this week that he would sign a hands-free law that would ban drivers from holding their phones while driving.
What Blass sees in the newly incorporated and relatively small city of Framingham (pop. 68,318) is something drivers can see everywhere these days — at least when they lift their eyes from their mobile phones.
Blass has seen drivers in moving vehicles watching YouTube videos. He’s seen them watching Netflix shows. He’s seen them spooning breakfast cereal from the bowls nestled in their laps while using their knees to steer. He’s seen them shaving and applying makeup in the rearview mirror. He’s seen them reading books propped on steering wheels. He used to see them reading newspapers that way, too, but not so much anymore — there’s an app for that nowadays.
“I’ve had people placing their coffee orders at Starbucks with that app where you can place your order so they can have your coffee ready for you when you get there,” Blass said. “People are just paying less attention to driving and more attention to their personal business.”
The all-time worst, Blass said, was the time he cited a driver who was juggling three devices: He was talking on a mobile phone next to his ear, texting on another mobile phone, and using a computer opened on his lap.
“That was the trifecta that time, that guy,” Blass said in an interview this week. “He earned the fine for that.”
What he mostly sees is more ordinary, and just as risky, forms of acrobatics: drivers’ thumbs flying with texts and emails in moving vehicles. And then lying about it.
No one wants to admit to texting and driving when police pull them over — which, Blass says, may be why highway safety researchers say it’s tricky proving a link between the recent upswing in traffic fatalities and drivers’ widespread use of smartphones. The data are just not there, and even in crashes, it can be difficult to prove a motorist was using his device while driving.
“Simply put, people lie. [If] they’re going to get in an accident, they’re not going to tell you they had their phone out. They’re just going to say, ‘I looked down for a minute,’ ” Blass said. He said drivers will admit to speeding before they’ll confess to texting and driving. “You see everybody doing it. And every car I stop, at least 99 percent say, ‘No officer, I wasn’t texting.’ ”
With a motorcycle, he’s often able to sneak up on drivers more easily than he could with a marked cruiser, and the added height of the bike allows him a good view inside. When he sees drivers texting or using their smartphones and the drivers lie about it, he’ll ask them to show him the last screen on their phones before the traffic stop. He’ll even tell them they don’t have to comply. But most will then back down, admitting they had been on the phone, without having to unlock it. Most of the time, they’ll also get off with nothing more than a warning, which Blass believes can often be enough to bring about compliance. For many drivers, checking the phone — even in a moving vehicle — has just become a bad habit, and a traffic stop can help break it.
“A lot of people don’t even realize they’re looking at their phones because it’s such a routine thing,” Blass said.
Under current Massachusetts law, drivers can initiate or receive a telephone call, Blass said. But if you get caught texting or emailing or doing something else that distracts you from driving, you can receive a citation with a $105 fine. It doesn’t carry points on one’s insurance. But Blass said it probably should: Higher fines and insurance surcharges might lead more motorists to challenge their tickets in court, but it also might cut down on distracted driving, he said.
“Being on the street so much, you see these drivers, and how a huge percentage of the operators are definitely doing something,” he said.
Read more of Tripping: