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Each year new hand-held or vehicle-installed gadgets come out and each year the number of injuries and deaths attributed to distracted drivers increases.

That is why the Tennessee Highway Safety Office (THSO) and the Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP) loaded up journalists, legislators and law enforcement personnel on a bus to illustrate the depth of the problem.

In less than two hours, Troopers from the Cookeville THP post, Putnam County Sheriff’s Department and Cookeville Police Department issued 21 citations which included 17 for not wearing seat belts, three for child restraint law violations and one for texting and driving.

Across Tennessee at eight trooper posts, 905 citations were issued.

“This campaign has grown tremendously due to increased support from local law enforcement and our traffic safety partners,” Vic Donoho, director of the THSO, said. “Our mission is to change driver behavior through increased education and enforcement, but we cannot do this alone.”

Police and invited guests left the Cookeville post in a large bus painted in the traditional colors of the THP trooper cars, clearly marked with large letters reading “Tennessee Highway Patrol” on the front, rear and sides.

Traveling south on Jefferson Ave. the bus eventually ended up traveling toward White County on State Hwy. 111.

Officers inside the THP bus communicated by radio to patrol units stationed along the way, or following, as violators passed the rolling department of safety billboard on wheels.

Fishing was slow in the beginning but when the bus turned around and started traveling north on State Hwy. 111, the action picked up.

First violations spotted were seat belt violations. Several window tint violations were observed as the bus rolled north with Sgt. Kevin Davis driving. On board were three journalists, State Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver of the 40th District consisting of DeKalb, Smith, Sumner and Trousdale and over half a dozen officers.

Several vehicles were stopped and citations issued during the trip.

Along the way a large SUV approached in the fast lane and the passenger turned toward the window of the vehicle and gave the universal middle finger salute as the vehicle passed the bus. Officers onboard roared with laughter.

A suspected drunk driver was stopped and as the bus passed a trooper was beginning to give the motorist a field sobriety test. It is not known if he passed or failed.

Then it happened. 

A woman driving a white SUV with Kentucky license plates held up a cellphone above the steering wheel as she passed the clearly-marked trooper bus. Just after getting in front of the bus, the vehicle suddenly veered onto the grassy shoulder before the driver jerked the steering wheel and the vehicle returned to the left lane.

A line of cars was behind the offender. Some of the motorists were probably afraid to try and pass the texting driver.

“Did you see that,” Lt. Jimmy Neal said with incredibility. “That is the kind of thing that causes accidents, results in road rage.” It also causes serious crashes when a driver over-corrects after running off the road and presents a danger for rear-end collisions.

An officer ahead of the bus in a patrol car was notified and the motorist stopped. As the bus passed, the officer was seen approaching the vehicle to engage the driver, who was still holding her cell phone high.

After about 90 minutes the bus returned to the THP post and the tour ended.

“If you’re not paying attention to the road, you’re part of the problem,” said Neal. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be just texting on your phone. We have a catch-all law called failure to use due care. If you’re driving and not exercising due care, that’s something you can be cited for.”

It was the second year for such bus tours being used to emphasize the dangers of texting, talking on cell phones, viewing GPS screens or changing DVDs.

“Distracted driving continues to be a major threat to the safety of our highways,” said Commisioner David W. Purkey of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security. 

The April 2017 first bus tour yielded more than 200 citations.

According to the Tennessee Integrated Traffic Analysis Network (TITAN), in 2017 there have been 22, 704 motor vehicle crashes statewide where distracted driving was a contributing factor. Eight-one of those crashes were fatal.

This time last year there were 23,486 crashes statewide with 107 of those being wrecks with fatalities.

In January motorists will not be allowed to talk on cell phones in school zones. Those caught will be subject to citations.

“If you’re inside those flashing lights (in school zones), you can’t be on the phone,” said Neal.

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