Police cracking down on distracted drivers
Westport drivers be alert: police officers will be out in force on Wednesday to make sure drivers keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel during the town's first official distracted driving crackdown.
Law enforcement officers will be sending the strong message that anyone caught texting or talking on a hand-held cell phone will be pulled over and ticketed. This is in addition to the departments normal participation in the nationwide "Click It or Ticket" seat belt campaign.
Connecticut has a primary law that prohibits all types of drivers from using handheld cell phones while driving, and bans text messaging for all types of drivers as well. A primary law means that an officer can ticket the driver for the offense without any other traffic offense taking place. Although no state has an all cell phone ban (handheld and hands-free cell phone use) for all drivers, Connecticut prohibits all cell phone use for the following drivers.
"¢ Novice drivers with a learner's permit and/or under 18 years of age.
"¢ School bus drivers.
"You are already multitasking just driving your car," said Westport Deputy Police Chief Dale E. Call. "At the very least, you are operating a piece of heavy machinery, navigating across changing streets, calculating speeds and distances, and responding to what other people are doing around you. That's why the Westport Police Department will launch the town's first dedicated crackdown campaign aimed at stopping distracted drivers."
Cell phone usage, whether talking or texting, adds one more activity to an already busy mix. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) statistics found that a driver using a hand-held device while operating a vehicle is four times as likely to get into a serious crash. In 2008 alone, nearly 6,000 people were killed and more than a half million people were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver nationwide. Additionally, in 2008, almost 20 percent of all crashes in the year involved some type of distraction.
Driving while talking on a cell phone is one of the chief traffic complaints of Westport residents. The AAA Foundation's first annual Traffic Safety Culture Index found that 82 percent of motorists rated distracted driving as a serious problem, yet more than half of those same individuals admitted to talking on a cell phone while driving in the past month, and 14 percent admitted to reading or sending text messages while driving.
Since October 2005, almost 117,000 cell phone and distracted driving citations have been issued in Connecticut by state and local police (Source: CT Central Infractions Bureau). Despite those numbers, most drivers do not understand the dangers posed when they take their eyes off the road and their hands off the wheel to focus on other activities.
"No phone call is worth the risk of a ticket or worse ... your life," said Captain Foti Koskinas. "When you take your eyes or your mind off the road or your hands off the wheel, you make it unsafe for everyone."
"These numbers may seem like just statistics, but we know that even one life lost is too many," Koskinas said. "Too often we bring the tragic news to families about the death of a loved one that may have been prevented had someone been paying attention to the road instead of their phone."
There is heightened concern about the risk of texting and talking while driving because they combine three types of distraction -- visual, taking your eyes off the road; manual, taking your hands off the wheel; and cognitive, taking your mind off the road.
"Law enforcement is not exempt from these distractions," Call said. "We also have radios and computers to answer calls for service. We send our officers to additional training in pursuit and emergency vehicle operations in an effort to make them better able to handle the demands placed upon them as they drive our streets, doing the job that we have asked them to do. We've had our share of the associated crashes."
"We feel strongly about distracted driving and the crashes that distracted driving causes," said Koskinas. "It's a matter of policy that our officers do not engage in telephone conversations or use their car computers while their police vehicle is in motion, except for emergency situations. We are taking a very strong approach to enforcement of this law as we encounter violations on the street."
In recognition of the importance of the issue to residents, the department will reassign staff officers and detectives from their normal duties during the morning hours on Wednesday to augment regular patrols. In order to maximize the number of officers assigned to the detail, department administrators will be working alongside them throughout the morning hours. Both marked and unmarked police vehicles driven by uniformed officers will be used.
If you are caught talking on a hand-held phone or texting, the Westport Police Department will pull you over and you will be fined. No more excuses, no more exceptions, police said.
"If you can't remember the last few blocks, do a reality check," Call said. "If the phone rings, pull over. If something falls, leave it there -- it's already down. Let's all focus more on the tasks involved in the potentially dangerous activity that we call driving."