Holding only a cardboard sign and wearing a baseball cap, sneakers, sunglasses, T-shirt and cargo shorts, Zach Kinderlan might have been mistaken for a panhandler.

But he wasn’t standing on a median strip Tuesday at the Topsham Fair Mall to convince someone to hand him a few dollars.

Kinderlan, a deputy at the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office, was looking for distracted drivers.

The cardboard sign he held read: “Hello. I’m a Deputy. If you’re TEXTING and driving you are about to get a ticket.”

Kinderlan and Sgt. Greg Siegel, who wore his uniform and sat nearby in a marked police cruiser, handed out several citations for distracted driving and texting while driving.

Though some drivers were caught off guard by Kinderlan’s attire – a few refused to roll down their windows and waved him off until he showed them his badge – the detail, which was funded by a $29,000 grant from the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety, may have helped raise awareness about the dangers of distracted driving.

“The reaction has been mostly positive,” said Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry. “People thought it was a creative way of raising awareness.”

Merry said Kinderlan came up with the idea of posing as a panhandler, which he and Merry felt would be more effective than a traditional detail. A traditional detail deploys two uniformed police officers in an unmarked cruiser with one acting as a “spotter” as the team searches for drivers who appear to be texting or distracted.

“The idea was to get people in their normal environment,” Merry said.

In a few instances, Kinderlan had to rap on the driver’s window of a vehicle stopped at the traffic light to get their attention. Some drivers would not even look at him. A couple offered him money.

Merry said he is not sure how many citations were issued, but it was no more than a dozen. Motorists face a minimum fine of $250 for texting and $134 for distracted driving. Merry said under Maine law, even if a car is stopped at a traffic light, it is against the law to text.

The Facebook photograph that the department posted of Kinderlan generated 140 comments.

“My family thinks I am weird because I won’t use the phone while I’m driving, unless my car is parked,” one woman said. “It shouldn’t be so hard to get people to stop endangering everyone around them. No one is that important that it can’t wait until you stop driving.”

“I personally think cops should hold themselves to the same standards. If it’s dangerous for us to text and drive it’s just as dangerous for them to text and drive,” one man wrote.

“The idea is great, but people in the medians are VERY Distracting!!” another commenter said.

“Ought to make the sign easier to read. Would be ironic if someone caused a collision trying to read it,” a man posted.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says distracted driving activities can involve sending a text message, talking on a cell phone, using a navigation system or eating food.

The CDC estimates nine people die each day in the United States and more than 1,000 are injured in crashes involving distracted drivers. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about 3,450 people were killed in 2016 in crashes involving distracted drivers.

Merry said the department’s grant, which expires Sept. 15, is part of a statewide initiative to crack down on distracted driving. He said Sagadahoc County is the only department in Maine that tried the novel approach.

“I think we generated a lot of interest that made people more aware of the fact that distracted driving is against the law,” he said. “Sometimes people need to be reminded. It shouldn’t take a tragedy to educate the public.”

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]

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