How the OPP's sneaky Sprinter van catches you texting at the wheel

The OPP say their sprinter van is the perfect stealth weapon when it comes to catching distracted drivers who continue to check their phones while driving on Ontario highways.

Unmarked van with tinted windows is the 'perfect tool' to catch distracted drivers, officers say

An unmarked police vehicle with large tinted windows, the OPP's sprinter van allows officers to peek in at drivers to see if they're paying attention at the wheel. Police say most of the time, drivers never see them coming. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Police fully admit it's a sneak attack, a stealthy way to creep up on unsuspecting drivers and catch them with a phone in one hand, the steering wheel in the other.   

The OPP's secret weapon is a Sprinter van. It doesn't look like much: An unmarked, black passenger van with black tinted windows and a high floor. 

But those characteristics make it the perfect tool for police to see whether drivers are paying attention, or breaking the law by pecking out a text while barrelling down the highway at 110 kilometres an hour. 

The tactic is simple: The van creeps up behind drivers on the left side.

One officer drives the van. The other operates from the backseat on the passenger side, peering through the tinted glass to see whether the target driver is paying attention, or looking at their phone. 

OPP officers at the Ingersoll detachment get ready for a morning of traffic spotting in the sprinter van. A tall passenger van with tinted windows, it lets officers peer through the driver's window of cars as they head down the highway. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

On a snowy Tuesday morning the OPP invited CBC London along for the ride as the sprinter van crept up on drivers — trucks in particular —  along Highway 401 between London and Woodstock. 

"In the Sprinter van, they don't expect us," said Const. Henk Ruitenbeek. During his interview with CBC, he worked from the van's tail-gunner position, craning his neck to peek in on drivers. Meanwhile his pilot — Sgt. Shawn Kivell — was at the wheel, manoeuvring the van to run parallel to suspect trucks long enough to give Ruitenbeek a good look. 

"It gives us a great vantage point," said Ruitenbeek. "We can look right in the vehicle because we're high up and they can't see us."

The van and its crew only spot the offending drivers. They work in tandem with other officers who drive nearby in marked police cruisers. When a driver is caught using a phone at the wheel or not wearing a seatbelt, the sprinter van crew radios their colleagues who pull over the driver and write the ticket. 

Ruitenbeek said he can often spot a distracted driver even before the Sprinter van gets close to the target vehicle. 

"We see drivers swerving within the lane, sometimes crossing the lane, cutting cars off without them even realizing it. It sparks my interest. It's very obvious. Often we'll see a finger tapping on a lit screen and the driver looking down at the steering wheel."

Traffic backups trigger a lot of tickets for inattentive driving, Ruitenbeek said. 

"If they have an appointment to get to and they can't make it, a lot of times the first thing they do is pull out their cellphone to start texting someone. Slow traffic is a great opportunity for us to see who's texting." 

Transport truck target

The Sprinter van crew is putting their focus on trucks, and with good reason. This has been a terrible year for horrific crashes involving trucks on Ontario highways. So far in 2017, the OPP has responded to over 6,200 collisions that involve transport trucks. A total of 87 people have died.

In one memorable crash in October, three people died when a tanker truck set off a chain-reaction crash on Highway 400 north of Toronto. 

The truck slammed into the back of another truck that had stopped for traffic. In total, 14 vehicles were involved in a crash caused by a truck police that called at the scene called a "bomb on wheels."

That crash and other fatal collisions prompted OPP Commissioner Vince Hawkes to call out truck drivers, saying inattention at the wheel was a common element in too many fatal highway crashes. 

Ruitenbeek said truck drivers have a greater responsibility to follow the rules of the road.

"A car is a vehicle, a truck is a missile," he said. "A truck can do huge damage. Some trucks carry dangerous goods and there's no stopping power like a car has, so they have a huge responsibility to operate safely."

Three people died in a 14-vehicle pileup earlier this year on Highway 400 south of Barrie. The crash happened when a tanker truck slammed into another truck that had stopped for traffic. The OPP have stepped up truck enforcement in a bid to curb these types of fatal highway crashes. (Kerry Schmidt/Twitter)

If Tuesday is any indication, it appears truck drivers may be getting the message. Ruitenbeek peeked in on dozens of drivers during our ride-a-long and found none guilty of distracted driving. 

He's happy not to be writing the $490 ticket (plus two demerit points) for inattentive driving. 

"They're all behaving today and that's good," he said. 


Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.