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Don't text and drive in this state: Fargo's first texting sting nets 17 drivers

U can't txt n drive? Rlly? Ya illegal in ND n MN. Can cops pull me ovr 4 it? Yup fine is $100 or $135. Even at stoplight? Mhm calls, GPS, music OK? Sure but b careful.

FARGO -- Officers wrote $100 tickets to 17 people for texting while driving this week during the Fargo Police Department's first such sting operation since North Dakota's ban on the behavior took effect just more than a year ago.

Lt. Joel Vettel said Fargo police haven't decided whether to conduct additional stings.

"We'll evaluate the success of the event and certainly talk about whether this is something we want to continue to do in the future," Vettel said.

Officers look for texting drivers while on routine patrol, but this was the department's first concentrated enforcement effort, said patrol Officer Mike Lovejoy, who played the role of spotter in the sting.

On Monday, Lovejoy sat in a nondescript city pool car at First Avenue North and University Drive, watching for texting behavior among drivers passing through or stopped at the intersection.

If he saw enough of the tell-tale signs -- the driver looking down for an extended period of time, using both thumbs to type more than 10 digits or typing without eventually holding the phone up to their ear -- he radioed ahead to one of three police cars with a description of the vehicle to pull over.

Some of those who were stopped denied texting while driving and voluntarily showed officers their phones, Lovejoy said.

"Some people were able to prove that they weren't in fact texting, which is a good thing, but obviously their attention was distracted at the time that I witnessed them," he said.

Officers issued 10 tickets for texting while driving Monday and another seven Tuesday, when Lovejoy set up in a street department vehicle parked in the median at the Interstate 29 intersections with Main Avenue and 32nd Avenue South.

Three officers worked the sting for about three to four hours each day during the late morning and early afternoon, Vettel said. Federal grant money paid for the effort, he said.

North Dakota's texting ban took effect Aug. 1, 2011, but Fargo police didn't begin citing drivers for the violation until Jan. 1 of this year, after the city passed its own ordinance so officers wouldn't have to file long-form complaints through district court.

Since Jan. 1, Fargo officers have issued 93 citations for texting while driving, including the 17 issued Monday and Tuesday, Vettel said.

Moorhead police haven't conducted stings similar to Fargo's, but Minnesota has funded overtime shifts focused on distracted driving in the last couple of years, Sgt. Deric Swenson said. It's become more common for officers to cite drivers for texting while driving since Minnesota's ban took effect in August 2008, he said.

West Fargo Lt. Duane Sall said he's not aware of police there issuing any tickets for texting while driving since North Dakota's law took effect, and there are no targeted enforcement efforts planned. He said it's a difficult crime for patrol officers to catch.

"I think we all see it while we're in our personal cars, but it's hardest to see in our squad cars" because drivers often see police coming before they can get close enough to observe it, he said.

Lovejoy was satisfied with the number of tickets issued during this week's effort, though he said he observed a lot more activity that may have been texting but wasn't cited.

"Obviously we have a ways to go to make the public a little more aware of this," he said.