U Drive. U Text. U Pay. Wilton Police are serious about driving this message home, and they were very visible about enforcing it Friday morning, April 29. That was the last of six distracted driving spot checks they conducted in April in partnership with the Connecticut Highway Safety Office as part of National Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

They were able to do so because the Wilton Police Department applied for a Distracted Driving High Visibility Enforcement Grant through the State.

All of the enforcement stops used one officer as a plainclothes ‘spotter’ in a discrete spot up the road from where other officers were waiting. The spotter would radio the uniformed enforcement officers when he noticed a driver committing a distracted driving violation. As the driver approached the team waiting ahead, he or she was pulled over and stopped.

distracted driving officer talks

In this case during Friday morning rush hour, the spotter—an officer wearing khakis, carrying a backpack and sporting a baseball cap and earphones which doubled as a transmitter—casually walked along Rt. 7, just north of Wolfpit Rd., looking into cars heading southbound. If he noticed any drivers committing distracted driving violations, he would radio that information to uniformed officers waiting at the Park & Ride commuter lot at Wolfpit Rd.. Another unit waited on Wolfpit Rd. in case the driver turned right before reaching the lot.

Traffic during the morning commute was paced slowly enough that the spotter was able to not just describe the vehicle and the operator, but also give as many details of what he saw as possible to the officers waiting ahead. Any specifics he noted were important:  Was the driver holding the phone up to her ear? Was he actively scrolling or texting with his thumb? Was the motorist actively engaged in a conversation while holding the phone? Details would be important for prosecution in case any motorist contested the infraction.

“Research has shown this is one of the more effective ways for doing distracted driving enforcement,” Lt. Rob Cipolla explains. “We’ve done six and it has been quite effective.” Before Friday’s enforcement action, the department had notched 148 stops and 98 infractions. In all of April, Wilton Police made a total of 190 motor vehicle stops for distracted driving related offenses, and as a result issued 116 distracted driving infractions—107 of which were directly part of the Distracted Driving High Visibility Enforcement Grant.

The majority of the infractions the department had spotted involved texting or talking on handheld phones, but there were a handful of other types of distracted driving—eating while driving was one Cipolla mentioned (56 talking on cell phone, 41 texting, 3 other distracted driving behavior, 7 other motor vehicle violations).

The department announced to the public ahead of time that they’d be conducting distracted driving enforcement exercises throughout all of April, which is Distracted Driving Awareness Month. Despite pessimists who scoff at warning people in advance because that decreases the number of people they can catch, law enforcement officers would rather prevent someone from breaking the law over catching someone after they’ve broken it. The deterrence effect, he says, is as much a positive.

“Part of it is the high visibility. Yes, the spotter is discrete, but if you’re coming down the road and you see three of our officers standing on the road, it makes you question why they’re there. We’ve made use of the digital message signs on Rt. 7 during a portion of the month, with the slogan, ‘You Drive, You Text, You Pay.’ The campaign isn’t just about enforcement and giving out tickets; it’s about educating the public too and letting it be known that we are out here and if you are on your cell phone we will take enforcement,” Cipolla says.

distracted driving units

They’ve tried different ways of camouflaging the spotter. Friday’s “regular guy walking up Rt. 7” was one way; they’ve also had spotters in vehicles on the road.

Without the state grant it would be difficult to do as much of this type of police work as the department would like.

“We don’t have the resources to have a designated traffic unit in Wilton. The grant makes it possible to have a more strategic focus on an issue like distracted driving,” he says, adding other efforts the department can do with state funding include DUI checkpoints, and seat belt “Click It or Ticket” enforcement.

The grant covers 75-percent of the officers’ salaries during the enforcement shifts; in addition, 25-percent of the paid penalty gets remitted to the town on a quarterly basis, to help offset the cost.

Each deployment covers an 8-hour shift; the department had to specify the locations they’d target in the grant application. Locating the spot checks at high-trafficked areas and intersection–such as Wolfpit Rd. and Rt. 7–gives officers time to effectively spot the infractions at a place drivers think it’s okay to pick up a cell phone. Other locations they’ve used during the month were also on Rt. 7, one in front of Town Hall and the other in Georgetown.

“Just because you’re stopped, if you’re using your cell phone to text or talk, it’s a violation of the CT general statutes. Just because you’re not moving doesn’t mean you can take your cell phone out and start using it,” Cipolla warns.

UPDATED:  The article was updated on Monday at 10:30 a.m. to reflect final incident numbers for the month-long enforcement effort.