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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Crackdown targets distracted drivers


By Elizabeth Benton
Register Staff

Frank Leonard was driving on Route 22 in North Branford Sunday when he says he was nearly hit by an SUV.
The driver had been chatting on a cell phone while passing Leonard at 65 miles an hour, he said.
“Most of the time, people are just talking to talk. People are just chatting for no reason. Families’ lives are ruined because people just have to chat,” he said.
Leonard’s concern is shared by Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who has launched a weeklong crackdown on distracted driving, claiming 25 percent of crashes are caused by driver distraction.
“Distracted driving is dangerous to everyone. Some distractions, no matter how minor, interfere with a driver’s ability to properly maintain control of his or her vehicle,” Rell said in a prepared statement.
“Operation Safe Drive” will continue through Friday.
“I am directing the state police to focus on the strict enforcement of distracted driving offenses, especially cell phone use while driving,” Rell said.
Connecticut law bans driving while using a hand-held cell phone. Drivers under age 18 are not allowed to use any cell phone, including hands-free devices.
While police cannot fine a driver based on other distractions like eating, reading a map or applying make-up, if it were determined a moving violation was caused by a distraction, drivers are subject to an additional $100 fine.
State police Sgt. Donna Tadiello said police will be on the roads this week, targeting cell phone use and “operation-type statutes,” including unsafe lane changes and tailgating.
“We’re looking to increase our efforts and patrols this week, specifically because most schools are on vacation,” Tadiello said.
New Haven truck driver Charles Suggs said Monday that he has seen a lot of distracted driving during his career, and admits to taking a few chances of his own. “Sometimes you’re gonna do it. There’s no way in the world you’re going to pull over to have a coffee,” he said.
Suggs said he’s hopeful the state effort will help. “None of us as drivers wants to see a crackdown. But it does help us to be aware of what we’re doing, because we know they’re watching,” he said.
Cheryl Onofrio of East Haven, however, was doubtful the crackdown would do much good. “It needs to be on a regular basis, because people will just be on the lookout this week,” she said.
Leonard, too. was skeptical: “If they really increase the price of the fine and really increase enforcement, people would stop,” he said.
New Haven Deputy Patrol Coordinator Lt. Joe Witkowski said city police hand out cell phone violations “constantly.”
“When you look at what driving is, it’s something that requires physical and mental awareness,” he said. Even hands-free cell phones can distract people from the road, he said.
In 2006, state police issued 2,500 tickets and 1,200 warnings for distracted driving (including cell phone use). In 2007, enforcement doubled to 6,300 tickets and 1,400 warnings.

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