FLORENCE, Ala. – It was an unusually cold spring morning when we arrived at the Florence Police Department’s Motor Unit for a unique operation.
But the weather worked in police favor, as Officer Alan Hooper bundled up in a bulky coat and cap, getting ready for his undercover role.
Officer Hooper would pose as a panhandle at a major intersection on Cox Creek Parkway.
When he spotted someone breaking Alabama’s distracted driving law, he would radio ahead to Officer Daniel Haynes. Officer Haynes would then make the stop.
Hooper even had a cardboard sign. Instead of a request for money, his sign read: “I’m not homeless. I’m looking for distracted drivers.”
It was a clear warning to anyone paying attention.
While a few did notice, most did not.
Hooper remained all but invisible to the majority of passing drivers. In many cases, it was because those drivers weren’t even looking at their surroundings. Their attention was elsewhere.
As Hooper radioed in the tag numbers and vehicle descriptions, we rode along with Officer Haynes for the stops.
In none of the cases did the driver say he or she noticed Hooper’s sign or even register that there was a man standing at the intersection.
All expressed surprise the man was an undercover officer. All offered up reasons for their distraction. Those included: using GPS, setting up their music, glancing at their phone, making a call and more.
The stops illustrate why it is so difficult for police to enforce the law. Without the watchful eye of an undercover officer or other clear proof, it’s easy for drivers to make excuses or simply lie.
While police can and do subpoena phone records, what Florence officers really want to do is change driver behavior.
That’s why this operation ends with no tickets, just warnings and a plea to put the distractions aside.
Officers Hooper and Haynes are trained traffic homicide investigators. They see first-hand the results of distracted driving.
“It’s almost been an (across the board) increase in people running red lights, stop signs and we truly believe it’s all related to distracted driving,” Officer Haynes says.
Officer Hooper adds, “it’s definitely unnerving to know there are people out there endangering themselves, as well as other people on the road.”
The Florence Police Department has also begun incorporating more unmarked vehicles into the traffic unit, as part of its distracted driving enforcement and Officer Hooper is heavily involved in the school system. He regularly gives presentations to the students, hoping to reach them before they even hit driving age.
Ultimately, their goal is to save lives. Maybe even yours.