Ahead of a statewide crackdown on distracted driving that began Monday, April 1, the Maplewood Police Department began stepping up traffic enforcement around town, deploying resources to remind motorists to focus on the road instead of their smartphones.
The New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety provided nearly $1.1 million in federal grant funds to 207 local police departments as part of its sixth annual “U Drive. U Text. U Pay” campaign, which runs through April 21. In Essex County, eight departments — Belleville, Bloomfield, Fairfield, Maplewood, Millburn, Montclair, Nutley and West Orange — were awarded $5,500 each to help fund local efforts.
Sgt. Scott Reeves, who heads the Maplewood Police Department’s five-person Traffic Bureau, said that the grant money will go toward staffing, materials and court costs.
“We’re trying to change the face of traffic in town,” Reeves said, adding that police will use a variety of methods to improve road and pedestrian safety — and not just during April, which the National Safety Council has designated as Distracted Driving Awareness Month.
“You’ll see more officers — or you may not see them,” he said, because some initiatives will include police working undercover as pedestrians or stationed in unmarked vehicles.
Distracted driving fines run $200 to $400 for a first offense, $400 to $600 for a second offense, and $600 to $800 for a third or subsequent offense along with three points and a possible 90-day license suspension. Behavior that can trigger a citation includes:
- Using a cell phone or smartphone
- Eating and drinking
- Talking to passengers
- Reading, including maps
- Using a navigation system
- Watching a video
- Adjusting a radio, CD player, or MP3 player
Last week, small teams of police officers were spotted in high-traffic areas around Maplewood, including on Prospect Street at Oakview Avenue — the location where a motorist struck a 54-year-old woman on March 22. The woman suffered minor injuries and was transported to Overlook Hospital for medical attention, according to police. The motorist was cited for driver inattention and failure to yield.
Reeves said that the Traffic Bureau, which was established last May to address pedestrian safety and traffic circulation, would use speed displays that show motorists how fast they’re going and collect traffic data around Maplewood, along with a variety of other measures. He noted that a driver recently struck and damaged the Maplewood Police Department’s MPH sign trailer on Burnett Avenue, earning a summons and putting one of the signs out of commission temporarily.
The Traffic Bureau will also hold events to help educate students and seniors understand the importance staying alert, with updates posted to its Facebook page. Planned elementary school events in May will include assemblies aimed at pedestrian safety, and another planned for Columbia High School before prom will emphasize the dangers of drinking and driving.
An April 9 event at the Maplewood Senior Center, 106 Burnett Avenue, will emphasize the benefits of walking and provide tips on safety navigating local streets on foot.
“We want to do something different in the community that hasn’t happened before,” Reeves said, adding that traffic complaints can be made via e-mail or in person at headquarters, located at 1618 Springfield Avenue.
Last year’s statewide distracted-driving crackdown resulted in 13,146 citations for cell phone use/texting — seven of those in Maplewood and five in South Orange — and 5,697 for careless driving, none in Maplewood and eight in South Orange. Participating police departments across the state also issued 6,538 and 5,712 speeding and seat belt tickets, respectively.
The South Orange Police Department did not receive a state grant this year, and a sergeant in charge of community relations could not be reached for comment.
In 2017, distracted-driving crashes killed 3,166 people, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In New Jersey, districted driving injured an estimated 47,021 people and was listed as a contributing factor in 51 percent of motor-vehicle crashes — a rate nine times higher than speed, which was the No. 2 contributing factor.
“The new Traffic Bureau initiative is designed to enhance traffic enforcement and pedestrian safety throughout our town,” Deputy Mayor Frank McGehee said via e-mail. “When people reach out or events occur, the Bureau follows up, administers flexibility, and takes action to address the event while maintaining its core plan and mission.”