Spotted: Distracted driving crackdown

Wilton police have been cracking down on distracted driving, thanks to a grant from the state, and today, The Bulletin got to see it in action.

The Distracted Driving High Visibility Enforcement Grant helps eligible police departments pay to put more officers on the road to target distracted driving, enforcing the Connecticut laws the forbid it.

“There’s a spotter further up north there,” Lt. Robert Cipolla said at the enforcement location in the commuter lot at the intersection of Danbury and Wolfpit roads on Friday, April 29.

“He’s calling out the violations,” Cipolla said. “We have one of our enforcement teams here, stopping the cars and pulling them over into the parking lot, but we also have a couple cars up there in case a car turns right up onto Wolfpit Road.”

By April 29, Cipolla said, the department had stopped 148 cars and issued 98 distracted driving-related infractions.

"That’s for the whole month," he said. "The majority of it has come from this grant enforcement, but that’s also including a few from our patrol officers during the course of the month too.” He said hard numbers will be made public when available.

“High-visibility enforcement” typically describes police-led traffic safety campaigns designed to change unlawful traffic habits, in which officers target one specific traffic safety issue and increase their enforcement of the law that prohibits it.

It usually coincides with some degree of public outreach through the media as well.

“They see a bunch of our cars parked here; they see us on the side of the road with our high-visibility reflective vests on, and if they’re not aware of why they’re there, it makes them question why they’re there,” Cipolla said.

“And then with the media coverage of it, with our usage of signs as we did during certain parts of the month, it makes people aware of why we’re there, and hopefully makes them think twice about using their cell phone while the drive,” he said.

Although they are the most prevalent, however, drivers on cell phones aren't the only breed of distracted motorist that Wilton police have ticketed during the campaign.

“Part of this is distracted driving behaviors,” Cipolla said, such as fiddling with a radio or reaching for a purse — things that take a driver’s eyes off the road.

“Over the course of this enforcement, we’ve had I think three violations for distracted driving-type behaviors other than cell phone texting or talking,” he said. “One of those was someone eating while they were driving.”

As Cipolla explained, the spotter’s job goes beyond simply calling out the culprits.

“When he sees a violation, he’ll radio to our enforcement team a description of the vehicle, description of the operator, and exactly what it is he saw.”

“And it’s important to be very specific,” he continued, “in terms of what he saw. It’s one thing if we issue a ticket, but then there’s prosecution afterwards, if they decide to go to court and contest the violation, we have to be specific in terms of what we saw. Was the phone in their right hand or their left hand? How close was it to their ear? Were their lips moving? Were their fingers moving as they were texting? It’s gotta be that specific.”

According to the officers on-location, distracted driving, at least as observed through the “U Drive, U Text, U Pay” campaign, cannot be pinned down to any one demographic.

“What I’ve dealt with, it’s all across the board,” said one. “The ticket I gave out earlier, the guy was 63.”

“The guy I just had was 22,” said another.

Asked if any one of these stops turned out to be something more, Cipolla said, “No criminal arrests, which is always a possibility, but they’ve had a couple no license or unregistered vehicles.”

The commuter lot off Danbury Road near Wolfpit Road is one of three locations Wilton police were authorized to conduct their campaign through the grant. The six deployments throughout the enforcement period were split between there, “in front of town hall, and then up north in the Georgetown area,” Cipolla said.

“This location, one of the days we had a lot, for these first few hours of the morning, but the majority of [enforcement] has been in front of town hall,” he said.

Wilton police were eligible for the Distracted Driving High Visibility Enforcement Grant because the town ranks in the top 50 statewide for distracted driving crashes.

But according to Cipolla, that may not be entirely accurate, because “to correlate a crash specifically to distracted driving, there needs to be some kind of admission or some kind of witness.”

“The state looks at a bunch of different variables specific to motor vehicle crashes, specific tot own population, daily vehicle miles travelled, and they come up with a weighted criteria and ranking system,” Cipolla said.

“A rear-end crash, a one-car motor vehicle accident, a one-car accident off the road — those are crashes indicative of perhaps something else going on in the vehicle that caught the driver’s attention and took it away from the roadway,” he said.

April 29 marks the end of the first wave of the “U Text, U Drive, U Pay” campaign in Wilton. It’ll ramp up again in August, sometime between Aug. 3 and Aug. 16.

“This grant has allowed us to strategically focus more on distracted driving, whereas the normal patrol officer going out on their given shift, they’re responding to criminal investigations; they’re responding to medical calls for service — a myriad of different types of calls, and in between there, they get in their motor vehicle enforcements,” Cipolla said.

“This is definitely a large amount of tickets for distracted driving violations,” he said, calling the effort an “absolute success.”