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Eagle-eyed RCMP officers in Airdrie on the lookout for distracted drivers

Police are testing an unmarked van this week that lets them observe traffic from a higher vantage point, allowing officers to see whether drivers are breaking the distracted driving law.

RCMP use unmarked van to find — and ticket — drivers who are on their phone

RCMP Sgt. Darrin Turnbull radios another officer from an unmarked van while checking for distracted drivers. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

RCMP in Airdrie are taking a new approach this week to catching motorists who use cell phones while driving.

Police are testing an unmarked van this week that lets them observe traffic from a higher vantage point, allowing officers to see whether drivers are breaking the distracted driving law.

One officer drives the van while another snaps photos of potential offenders, then radios ahead to colleagues, who pull drivers over if needed.

"If we see anything else, seatbelts, or aggressive driving manoeuvres, we'll obviously deal with those as well," said Sgt. Darrin Turnbull, with RCMP Traffic Services.

Turnbull says the van is being used because drivers behave a bit more naturally when they don't realize police are nearby.

"They see the marked police vehicle and they drive good," he said.

"It's like a child. They're not going to misbehave when mom or dad is watching. We've got to be out there in this type of a situation so we can observe them when they don't think they're being watched."

Melody Battle suffered a traumatic brain injury when she crashed while sending a text message in 2013. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

On Tuesday — the first of four days the van was put to use this week — Turnbull said while driving on Highway 2, police saw three semi-trailer drivers on their phones.

"They were driving 100 km/h on the QEII, by Airdrie, with their cell phones in their hands," he said.

"We all know the tragedy that can happen if a commercial vehicle is involved in a crash."

Melody Battle is an example of the tragedy that can result from distracted driving.

On May 4, 2013, Battle was driving to work and decided to send her boss a text saying she would be late.

She then crashed into a grader and suffered a traumatic brain injury. She also now suffers seizures and at age 25 has the mentality of a 14-year-old.

"I just don't understand. Why is it so important to text your friends and family?" she said.

"Think about it — if you were texting and driving, you could not only kill yourself, you could kill someone else."

Turnbull says he sees distracted driving, "constantly, every day" while out patrolling.

"Just look left and look right when you're driving your own vehicle," he said. "It's actually scary how often and how much we see it."

RCMP say their integrated traffic units — along with Alberta sheriffs —  issued more than 4,300 distracted driving tickets last year.

Turnbull said that when he began his career in policing 22 years ago, a weaving car likely had an impaired driver behind the wheel, but today, it's just as likely to be a distracted driver.

Over the years, he's seen people engaged in other distracted behaviours like reading books, newspapers, and even one driver who was flipping through the pages of a binder to help their child study for a test.

"Everybody has got busy lives, but while we're driving, we need to just be driving," said Turnbull.

With files from Anis Heydari

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