Look up or pay up: Montgomery Co. cracking down on distracted drivers

WHEATON, Md. — Distracted drivers are always on the radar of police issuing tickets, but extra patrols and officers working overtime are cracking down in Montgomery County as part of the “Vision Zero” initiative.

Communities nationwide have adopted Vision Zero goals to prevent drivers, walkers and cyclists from dying in traffic crashes.

“Distracted driving and distracted walking are two of the leading causes of crashes in Montgomery County. Today, we are reminding drivers and pedestrians of the need to stay alert to stay alive,” County Executive Ike Leggett said.

Leggett joined other community leaders Thursday in announcing this month’s “Stay Alert, Stay Alive” campaign, which is part of the county’s Vision Zero plan.

While the news conference was underway alongside Randolph Road in Glenmont, nearby officers conducted traffic stops that included the use of spotters and stop teams. An officer standing on a sidewalk watched for distracted drivers, then radioed information to officers down the road who would then conduct a traffic stop and issue a ticket.

“Every time we pull somebody over they tell us, ‘Can you give me a warning?’ And the answer is going to be ‘no,’” said Montgomery County police Capt. Tom Didone. “We want you to get home safe every day, so this is your warning.”

Speaking passionately about the pervasiveness of distracted driving, Didone said that in addition to stepped-up resources being devoted to distracted drivers this month, officers are being encouraged to conduct enforcement whenever they can.

“But the way we’re going to solve this problem is not through enforcement,” Didone said. “It’s through voluntary compliance and getting this message out to people: Everybody is doing it, and everybody needs to stop doing it.”

Fines and education

Fines for distracted driving tickets range from $83 for a first offense to up to $160 for repeat offenders, Didone said. Maryland lawmakers are currently considering legislation that would
increase the penalty to a $500 fine for a first offense.

Over the last five years, five teenagers have been killed by vehicles, and at least 292 teen pedestrians have been hit by cars in Montgomery County, officials said. The importance of staying alert while driving and walking is part of the health education curriculum for children from preschool to high school in Montgomery County Public Schools.

“It’s an ongoing effort, and the more that we can know about this and educate students, community, teachers, then we can work together to make sure all people are striving to be less distracted and be safe on the roadways and the sidewalks,” said Cara Grant, Montgomery County Public Schools supervisor of health and physical education.

Engineering solutions

Engineering solutions include separating walkers and cyclists from traffic, narrowing traffic lanes, and installing roundabouts and speed bumps. Reducing speed saves lives.

“If someone is hit by a vehicle going 20 mph, they have a survival rate of 80 percent. If they’re hit at 40 miles an hour, their survival rate drops to 20 percent,” said David Anspacher of the Montgomery County Planning Department.

The National Safety Council has named April Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and awareness is a good first step, Didone said.

“We’re here because we care,” he said. “We want to keep people safe and we want to stop these crashes.”

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Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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