As he patrols highways in Snohomish County, he sees countless drivers using their cellphones illegally.
"It's a lot more obvious at night," he said. "It actually illuminates the side of their heads."
Sometimes, Leary follows the drivers in his marked patrol car for several miles before they notice they've been caught.
He worries that they don't realize how much using their phone can impact their driving and safety.
Just two weeks ago, the National Transportation Safety Board made headlines by suggesting that states should ban drivers from any use of cellphones or other portable electronic devices, except for during emergencies.
Washington in 2010 banned drivers from using hand-held phones. Exemptions exist, but generally the law says police can pull over and cite drivers who are texting or holding their phones up to their ear to talk.
Leary worries that the law has been around just long enough that people have stopped paying attention. Data show more people are being cited here than ever.
In the last seven months of 2010, troopers pulled over nearly 1,400 drivers for cell-phone use in Snohomish, Island, Skagit and Whatcom counties, according to State Patrol data. Roughly half of those drivers were cited.
As of early December, troopers in the same area had pulled over more than 2,600 people for cellphone use so far this year. In 2010 and 2011, less than 10 percent of those stops were for people who were texting.
People routinely call 911 to report drunken drivers who later turn out to be sober, Leary said. Others see them swerving, speeding and driving on the shoulder.
When troopers pull those drivers over, they often admit they were using their phone, he said. Many say the call was unimportant, but they were too tempted when they heard the phone ring.
Some try to be sneaky by hiding the phone under the steering wheel when they're texting, Leary said. That's worrisome because that means they're looking at their laps -- not the road.
Phones aren't the only distractions, Leary said. Messing around with a GPS, CD player, iPod or coffee cup can be just as dangerous, but drivers engrossed in casual cellphone conversations are causing trouble on local roads.
"They don't realize what the distraction is until they get involved in a collision," he said. "It's too late at that point. That's a hard lesson to learn, getting involved in a crash, hurting yourself or someone else, because you were talking on a cell phone."
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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