Distracted driving enforcement lags in Stamford
STAMFORD -- Klaus Larsen sees drivers speeding and talking on their cellphones in his Belltown neighborhood all too often and has urged police to do more enforcement along busy Oaklawn Avenue.
"I see people on their cellphones constantly," Larsen said. "It's a busy cut-through street and it's a combination of people not caring about pedestrians, going too fast and talking on their cellphones."
Stamford police have begun doing more enforcement in the area, but the department does not have a dedicated traffic squad and is hampered by a lack of manpower, officials said.
Since the state enacted distracted driving laws in 2006, Stamford has consistently lagged behind other departments in cities with similar populations, such as Hartford and New Haven. Since 2006, Hartford has issued an average of 1,881 distracted driving violations and New Haven has issued 1,316.
During the same time, Stamford has issued an average of 511 citations for cell phone, texting or other distracted driving violations.
More InformationDriven to distraction Number of distracted driving tickets issued in 2011: MUNICIPALITY / TICKETS ISSUED HARTFORD -- 3,279 BRANFORD -- 1,995 NEW HAVEN -- 1,633 FAIRFIELD -- 1,397 GREENWICH -- 1,251 RIDGEFIELD -- 1,127 WEST HARTFORD -- 1,041 NEW LONDON -- 937 BRIDGEPORT -- 926 NEWTOWN -- 857 EAST HARTFORD -- 786 WESTPORT -- 658 MILFORD -- 600 NEW CANAAN -- 538 DARIEN -- 529 STAMFORD -- 484 FARMINGTON -- 476 SOUTHINGTON -- 458 NORWALK -- 407 WINDSOR -- 356
In comparison, Greenwich issued an average of 1,239 a year; Bridgeport, 1,149; Darien, 783; New Canaan, 539; and Norwalk, 473.
Stamford Assistant Police Chief Jim Matheny said a lack of manpower is the primary reason the city has no dedicated traffic enforcement unit, but he believes a new initiative in 2012 asking patrol officers to crack down on speeding, distracted driving and other traffic safety violations with the goal of reducing the number of serious accidents is working.
"They have done everything that we've asked and have embraced it," Matheny said. "We have also had a number of excellent criminal arrests that have come about as a result of motor vehicle stops."
Matheny said he hopes patrol officers can break 3,000 car stops a month alongside their other duties, but acknowledged meeting that total would depend on other demands for service.
"We do not have any immediate plans to form a traffic unit because we'd have to have a significantly higher number of officers to do so," Matheny said. "I can tell you the patrol division is making about 3,000 car stops a month now, and we're looking to change the way people drive in the city to reduce the number of accidents."
The Stamford Police Department has a total of 274 sworn officers, 14 of whom are either in the police academy or on long-term injured on-duty status, leaving 260 officers available to fill regular patrol shifts.
With significantly fewer officers than in the past, Matheny said the department has to prioritize filling patrol shifts, making it hard to consider designating officers to a full-time traffic enforcement unit.
Stamford Police Sgt. Andrew Gallagher, head of the department's Collision Analysis and Reconstruction Squad said the department is trying to make the most effective use of the enforcement it is conducting by collecting data from areas where complaints are reported.
Before undertaking an enforcement blitz in response to resident complaints, the police will use speed trailers as they are doing on Oaklawn Avenue to document actual violations and when they are occurring, Gallagher said.
"We target our limited enforcement opportunities," said Gallagher. "We want to be there when the problem is actually occurring rather than acting on a perceived problem that is reported. We're doing more with less."
Gallagher said in Stamford during the 2006 to 2011 period that the department has increased its arrests for operating under the influence, particularly in 2010 and 2011, at holiday checkpoints as well as more dogged efforts by accident investigators to determine if drivers are inebriated throughout the year.
The number of driving under the influence arrests have risen from 139 in 2006, to 278 in 2010, and 233 in 2011, Gallagher said.
"Traffic stops are an important way to conduct police work whether it is discovering unlicensed operators or people who have warrants out on them," Gallagher said. "But we can't do as much concentrated motor vehicle enforcement if we don't have people on overtime to do it."
In Greenwich, the police department has a six-officer traffic unit that focuses on the selective enforcement; focusing on a different traffic offense each month, Greenwich Police Sgt. John Slusarz, commander of the unit said.
The focus reflects the desire of residents to see traffic issues resolved as well as police concerns for safety, Slusarz said.
"It's something that people complain about all the time about people talking on their cellphones and not paying attention to driving," Slusarz said. "Distracted driving is a big focus for us because it is a factor in many crashes."
Prior to 2005, only one officer in the department was dedicated to the full-time enforcement of violations.
The offense chosen in any given month is determined partly by evaluating accident statistics to determine if certain offenses are contributing to the most accidents at that time of year, Slusarz said.
During March the department has focused on issuing tickets to motorists who pass school buses, Slusarz said, and will focus on distracted driving four months this year.
Slusarz said in 2011 the town had no fatal crashes, which he considers most likely linked to more comprehensive enforcement of traffic laws on an ongoing basis.
"We do distracted driving four months out of the year because it is a big contributing factor towards crashes statistically," Slusarz said.
Gallagher said he hopes the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration soon approves a nationwide pool of funds to be dispersed to local police departments similar to those created to provide grants for drunken driving enforcement around holidays and to curb seatbelt violations.
In 2010, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducted "A Phone in One Hand, A Ticket in the Other," which funded high-visibility enforcement and public relations efforts to deter distracted driving habits in Hartford and Syracuse, N.Y.
In Hartford, a comparison of counts of offenders before and after the enforcement blitzes showed a 57 percent drop in distracted driving behavior being observed, according to NHTSA's study.
"It showed a combination of serious enforcement and public awareness had an impact on people's behavior."
In response to public complaints, toward the end of 2008, police in New Canaan began to apply enforcement efforts to tackle distracted driving offenses, issuing 710 infractions in 2009, nearly double that in 2008, Chief Edward Nadriczny said.
"In late 2008 and early 2009 we really got some feedback from the public that they were kind of tired of constantly seeing drivers in vehicles on their cellular phones," Nadriczny said. "We try to choose places where it is both easy to see someone committing the offense and get them pulled over in a safe place without stopping traffic."
When weather and staffing permit, two town officers certified to conduct motorcycle traffic enforcement are deployed to do traffic enforcement.
Last year Connecticut increased the fine for a first offense to $125, and a second offense to $250, but Nadriczny said the fine in itself has yet to be proven as an effective deterrent.
Nadriczny said over time, drivers might become more compliant with the hand-held cell phone ban as most drivers have become to seatbelt laws.
"In my opinion people should know by now," Nadriczny said. "I'm hopeful that the use of hand-held cell phones falls of, but people are still making a lot of stops for cellphone violations. Some people just aren't getting the risk. "
In Westport, police commanders hope to get a second full-time officer to focus on traffic enforcement this spring to help boost citations of dangerous driving behaviors, Deputy Chief Fito Koskinas said.
In 2007 and 2008, the department issued 1,266 and 1,255 citations for distracted driving when it had two full-time officers -- but has only had one full-time traffic enforcement officer since, Koskinas said.
"As we find opportunities at reallocating our patrol we want to have a second car doing traffic because we want to put an emphasis on distracted driving because it causes some serious accidents," Koskinas said.
Both Koskinas and Gallagher said that even in the cases of very serious accidents it is difficult to prove using phone records if cellular phone use played a part.
"It is very difficult to prove even in 2012 with technology being what it is to pinpoint what was happening at the point of impact," Koskinas said.