SAN BERNARDINO (CBSLA.com) — The next time you pass a panhandler at an intersection, you may want to read their cardboard sign.
If motorists in the Inland Empire had read the signs instead of their cellphones, they would have escaped a ticket from officers posing as homeless.
Despite all the warnings and tragedies, an average of 660,000 drivers are hitting the nation’s roads distracted behind the wheel, busy with cellphones or other electronics.
CBS News’ Ben Tracy reports on how police in San Bernardino are taking an unusual approach to stop the potentially deadly habit.
The officers dress in plain clothes at freeway off-ramps and hold cardboard signs typical of panhandlers. They spot drivers violating traffic laws and use a radio to alert a nearby officer in a patrol car.
One sign read: “S.B. Police [arrows pointing to officer]. I am not homeless. Looking for seatbelt and cellphone violations.”
A woman behind the wheel even tried to hand a bill to the officer. He ran up to her car and said, “Hey, don’t give to the homeless people. I’m a police officer.”
Some drivers were nabbed for multiple offenses.
“We had a woman coming down with no seat belt on, she was talking on her phone and putting on mascara, all at the same time, and driving,” one officer told Tracy.
Cellphones are now involved in approximately 1.6 million car crashes nationwide each year, killing 6,000 people, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Ninety-eight percent of adults told the Department of Transportation they know texting while driving is unsafe, but 49 percent of those surveyed said they do it anyway.
Detective Devin Peck says in just two hours, San Bernardino police stopped 54 people and issued 39 tickets for distracted driving.
“It happened, and it will probably happen again; however, I got caught,” said David Hernandez, one motorist who drove away with a ticket.
“I text sometimes, and I know I shouldn’t be,” said ticketed driver Al Navarro, who commended the officers’ undercover operation. “I think it’s good. I mean, it taught me a lesson.”
A first-time offense in San Bernardino for handling a cellphone while driving totals $162. A second offense will net the driver a $285 ticket.
Despite officers’ efforts to drive the message home about distracted driving, some people didn’t seem to learn the lesson.
“You’re going to be cited again this morning for using a cellular device while operating a motor vehicle,” Detective Donald Sawyer told a woman behind the wheel of a blue Mitsubishi.
Sawyer says he caught her checking her voicemail just two weeks after issuing her a ticket for the same offense: “Same violation, same location, same vehicle.”
“Did she seem embarrassed or just angry?” Tracy asked Sawyer.
“She was just angry today,” the officer said.
When asked if he thought reckless drivers understood the risk, Sawyer said: “I don’t think so. I often ask people if they would drive blindfolded and, of course, the answer is ‘no.’ They kind of see the relation between driving blindfolded and driving distracted.”
Drivers on average take approximately five seconds every time they text. When traveling at 55 mph, that’s enough time for a vehicle to traverse half the length of a football field.
San Bernardino is cracking down on distracted driving because Lt. Travis Walker says the city has more traffic deaths than murders every year.
But are drivers getting the message?
Walker told Tracy, “It’s almost like ‘the rules don’t apply to me,’ and that’s unfortunate. Accidents are preventable.”