Police nab scores of distracted drivers

Wilton police issued 21 infractions Monday, June 16, during a zero tolerance motor vehicle enforcement effort by members of the Regional Motor Vehicle Task Force. Wilton was joined in the effort by New Canaan police, which issued 14 tickets and Norwalk, which gave out 14 tickets and two summonses. Of the total 49 infractions issued, 27 were for cell phone use and two for distracted driving. Officers spent about two hours in each town, keeping watch on targeted roads from side streets.

This was a first-time collaborative effort of this kind that brought a dozen officers to Norwalk at about 7 as morning traffic started building to its peak. They then moved to New Canaan a little after 10 and headed to Wilton around 12:30. Police spent about two hours in each town, spread out to cover various key roadways. Also, rather than a simple checkpoint — which would likely tip off many offenders and send them scrambling to get their phones out of sight — officers kept watch on target roads discreetly from side-streets.

“This is a tremendous problem that’s going on every single day,” said New Canaan Police Chief Leon Krolikowski, speaking about distracted driving. “It’s a pervasive problem throughout the state of Connecticut, and frankly, the nation.”

That’s partly why the three police forces teamed up, he said — think of it as a show of force to demonstrate how seriously police consider the problem. Police acknowledge the scope of the problem and how much effort and education correspondingly it’ll take to change this massive societal trend.

“It’s probably going to take a long time for us to educate the public on how dangerous this is,” Chief Krolikowski told The Bulletin’s sister paper, The New Canaan Advertiser. “There’ll probably be more accidents and more fatalities. So we’re doing what we can now.”

He added that he’d like to see stiffer penalties for distracted driving and other infractions like passing a stopped school bus. With distracted driving, it’s illegal to be talking with the phone up to your ear or doing anything with your hands to operate a cell phone, tablet, or other electronic device; a ticket will net you a $150 fine. Talking on an earpiece, speakerphone, via an in-car microphone and speaker, etc., is legal, but Chief Krolikowski stressed it’s still not safe and is a bad idea.

“It’s such a habit that’s it’s become second nature to make sure that no matter where you are, if that phone rings, you have to answer it or you have to check it,” he said. “But in the car, you need to pay attention to driving.”

‘The DUI of today’

In the recent past, the biggest problem on the roads was driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. That problem is still very serious, police say, but years of tough enforcement and extensive education have been paying off and communities are seeing less of it. Distracted driving is different, said New Canaan Police Captain Vincent DeMaio, in that probably 100% of drivers have done it; a large percentage do it frequently or even constantly.

And studies from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, he pointed out, have shown that talking on a cell phone and other forms of distracted driving can impair a driver to the same extent as a blood alcohol content of 0.10% or higher (the level at which an adult of legal drinking age is legally driving under the influence is 0.08%).

Thus, the distracted driving problem, Capt. DeMaio said, “is the DUI of today.”

“It’s almost like going back 30 or 40 years and putting an extra 40% more drunk drivers on the road,” he said. “Everybody thinks, ‘Nothing has happened to me; this doesn’t apply to me.’ It’s never a problem until it’s a problem.”

Further, in communities such Wilton and the surrounding towns, there are a number of complicating factors at play.

“There are a lot of SUVs and larger vehicles on the road here,” Capt. DeMaio said. “We have many young, inexperienced drivers who are so used to being on their cell phones constantly. There are country roads and many roadside activities. We have lots of bikers, we have a lot of people walking their dogs, we have a lot of runners.”

Fold in other driver offenses such as speeding and not obeying traffic signs and signals, he added, “and it’s a recipe for disaster.”

“It’s hard for people to understand it’s just one split second that something terrible can happen — if I take my eyes off the road, in a few seconds, I may already have covered hundreds of feet,” he said. “Think of all those lives that can be irrevocably changed — people killed or hurt, people whose lives will never be the same — by that one look at a text or checking a phone,” Capt. DeMaio said.

“Is it really worth it?”