For many police officers, traffic stops are a routine part of the job. But these encounters can sometimes be unnerving for everyone involved; some have even turned deadly. One former San Antonio police officer is hoping to change that with a ticket-by-text program that would eliminate the need for officers to pull over drivers for minor traffic violations.
Texas Standard spoke with Val Garcia, president and CEO of the Trusted Driver Program, which is testing the program in Windcrest, Texas. Garcia explains how drivers can voluntarily opt into the program and may even receive positive text messages from officers for good driving habits, not just tickets.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: How does this program work, exactly?
Val Garcia: Well, it works by an officer being able to send an electronic message to a driver verifying who the driver is and issuing a citation, warning or positive message.
So a positive message might be something like, “Hey, I noticed you were driving terrific today, congratulations and thanks”? Is that what you’re suggesting?
Sure, something like that. Like, if somebody is obeying the school zone speed limit they can send a message, “Thank you for driving in a school zone and keeping our kids safe.”
Tell me the mechanics of how this works. Would you pull over someone or would you just do all this while you’re on the road? How does that work?
So what happens is an officer observes a violation like you running a stop sign, like a rolling stop. He has to witness the violation, he’ll get behind you but then he’ll initiate a message to you or to your phone. And that message will just ask you one question: “Are you driving this vehicle?” As soon as you hit “yes,” he’ll receive it in real time; it’s fast.
At that point, he’s not going to pull you over, he’s just going to send you either a warning, a citation, or a positive feedback message. So he doesn’t pull you over, but he will get behind you. Now, some cities would like the motorist to get pulled over and then just send the message. But we also receive some cities saying they don’t want officers to pull anyone over for those minor traffic violations.
What about laws in place to prevent people from texting and driving?
I know you’re asking because you are sending a text and you have a cellular phone, and you’re not supposed to use it while you’re operating a vehicle, but that’s not actually true. You can use your cellular phone as long as they’re a hands-free device. You can respond to a notification, you can change the GPS and you can respond to an Amber Alert. That’s exactly what it is.
One message pops up that says, “Are you driving the vehicle?” It’s a big “yes” or a big “no” – you just hit it one time and that’s all you need to do as the driver. We adhere to all transportation code rules just like Uber, Google Play, or GPS and all that. You’re allowed to use the cellular phone as long as it’s mounted on your car and it’s hands free.
This wouldn’t be for everyone as I understand it, right? You have to get people to buy into the program at first.
Correct, but it’s not a buy in; it’s free for motorists. They just have to join and create a profile in our system and it’s free of cost. There’s no subscription fee or anything for a motorist.
So similar to the way that the Transportation Security Administration does prescreening – you would have trusted drivers that are submitting to being ticketed by text, right?
It’s exactly like that; it’s a voluntary program.
Tell us a little bit about how tests are going, and why Windcrest, Texas, is the testing site for the program.
Well, all we’ve got is very positive feedback from the officers and the residents. Windcrest was a perfect place because it’s a small community, easy to control and it’s very innovative.
How’s it going so far? Do you have any numbers yet?
Yeah, we’re still collecting data, but it’s going fantastic. The officers love it, and the community has responded really great. Of course, they had questions because it’s so new, but we’re there to answer all the questions and be there for the community.
We’ve stories of how cities have, I guess you could say, padded revenue, as it has been described in the past with. How do you ensure that the system isn’t abused or used that way?
This is so new that what we’re doing with Windcrest is, we’re rolling it out as just a warning and positive feedback system and seeing how the community reacts to that. We’re not issuing actual citations yet, although we can. That’s how we’re rolling the system out right now.
Why are you doing this? As a former San Antonio police officer, what got you interested in this?
We noticed what was going on across the country. There were a lot of incidents that were occurring that didn’t have to occur, and a lot of them were for miscommunication, you know? As soon as you’re pulled over by an officer on the side of the road, both you and the officer are in immediate danger from an accident or oncoming vehicles. I mean, there have been 454 officers killed in the last decade by traffic-related incidents and being struck by vehicles. So that was really one of the strongest motivations: we want to help save lives.