FOX13 Investigates: New tool used to bust distracted drivers

Police say it is more dangerous than drunk driving and at record highs. Distracted driving has led to more than 5,000 crashes this year in Shelby County alone.

Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP) is coming up with a new solution to the growing threat on our roads, using an unmarked semi.

“From this angle, we can see down into the vehicle and see exactly what's going on,” said Sgt. Chris Richardson, from the passenger seat of an unassuming semi-tractor trailer.

Sgt. Richardson is there for one reason, to spot drivers who are not focused on driving.

“Alright, we've got a white Acura,” said Richardson on his radio. “She had her phone out, below the steering wheel.”

Within seconds, THP troopers in marked squad cars key on the vehicle and pull over the alleged distracted driver.

“We tend to get a lot of excuses, people won't admit to texting and driving, because they know that it's against the law,” said Lt. William Futrell, who made the traffic stop.

The driver behind the wheel of the Acura is Angel, who insists she was not texting. She does admit to being on her phone.

“I had my GPS out, and I missed a call from 201 Poplar, because we were just down there,” explained Angel.

The patrol officers gave her the benefit of the doubt and issued Angel a warning citation.

THP could have easily issued a citation and hefty fine. According to TN state law, if you are distracted by anything in your car, you can be cited under the Due Care law.

It specifies drivers must devote, "full time and attention to operating the motor vehicle." So far this year, THP has issued more than 200 citations for failure to exercise Due Care.

“They are out there. It's an epidemic,” said Sgt. Richardson.

The epidemic is non-stop connection to our smart phones.

In 2011 a national study found that at least 23-percent of auto collisions involved cell phones.

It's not just texting and driving anymore either. Law enforcement said they see snapchatting, emails being sent and fantasy football being checked.

“You see some of the same things that you see you when you're behind somebody who is under the influence,” said Sgt. Richardson. “It's very scary.”

Police officers see the problem all the time in their personal cars. When people see a cop car though, they put down the phone. That is why THP is now using the unmarked semi to peer into the driver’s seat and bust those who are putting others at risk.

“We are trying to change people's bad driving habits,” Richardson said.

Unfortunately for Cedric, his bad habits are in Sgt. Richardson’s line of sight.

“White Mercedes convertible... he's been on that phone for the last three or four minutes,” said Sgt. Richarson. “[He] had no idea we were beside him, had no idea you had cameras on him.”

For Cedric, there were no excuses.

“I'm honest. I was texting concerning some business for work,” said Cedric, after handing over his license and registration.

The honesty was appreciated, but a ticket was still written. THP troopers say the citations are important but the safety lesson is the real thing they are trying to give to drivers.

“I explained to him the consequences that we see daily from people texting and driving, the crashes we work. You just never know who's going to pull out in front of you,” said Trooper Matthew Kiddy.

“If we save one life, it is well worth it,” said Sgt. Richardson. “It's all about safety.”