Police crack down on distracted driving

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BENNINGTON — Text it? Ticket.

Drivers in downtown Bennington found that to be true Thursday, as Bennington Police Department officers handed out tickets for cell phone use while driving — including texting, as part of an enforcement detail against distracted driving.

The enforcement effort was one of several the Bennington Police Department has planned for this month, in connection with Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

Lt. Camillo Grande, stationed on South Street, watched for drivers using cell phones. When he spotted one, he radioed officers Amanda Knox and Michael Pierce, who were in position further up the road. They guided the drivers into the driveway next to the police station.

Most everybody stopped in Thursday's detail would get a ticket, Knox said.

"This [is] like a zero-tolerance thing," she said. Police don't want anybody to get hit by a distracted driver, she said. "So many accidents are caused by this," she said.

Every day, at least nine Americans die and 100 are injured in distracted driving crashes, according to the National Safety Council.

In 2017 alone, 3,166 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a decrease from 2016, when 3,450 people were killed.

Knox and Pierce stopped three vehicles within about the first ten minutes of their enforcement detail.

Robert Hoard, a recent transplant from New York to Bennington, was stopped for texting.

"I didn't even realize," Hoard said. "I was probably just putting the music on, or something."

He said he doesn't typically use his phone while driving, except to change his music sometimes.

"You know, texting and driving," said one woman driving a silver Honda Ridgeline truck. "Usually I don't." But her friend happened to message her while she was driving, she said.

Over the course of an hour, Pierce and Knox stopped about nine cars.

Grande went out for an hour Wednesday in plain clothes to get preliminary data on people using their phones while driving, said Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette.

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He observed an average of one out of every 10 people using their phones,either texting or talking.

"He [Grande] called me and says, `Chief, it's unbelievable,'" Doucette said.

Many times, people creep up to the stop sign, or a red light, and take out their phone, Pierce said. But using a phone while driving in Vermont is illegal — even if you're stopped.

"A lot of people think you can sit at a red light and text," Pierce said. "That's not correct."

Grande and Knox enforced two Vermont state statutes, one forbidding handheld use of a portable electronic device while driving, another prohibiting texting while driving — including emails and instant messages.

The tickets Knox and Pierce handed out started at $162 for a first offense regarding handheld use of a portable electronic device.

Fines were higher for texting while driving violations, starting at $230 for a first offense.

"A lot of people own up to it," Pierce said violations. "Sometimes, [I] ask them why the passenger isn't relaying the message."

But, sometimes, people get angry, Knox said.

It's important to make sure an officer actually witnesses the violation, Pierce said. "We want to be able to see the violation," he said. "We don't want to give [anyone] a ticket who doesn't deserve a ticket. That's not what this is about."

Pierce said that in his experience, many crashes are caused by distracted drivers.

"You say, `How did this happen?'" he said. People will say things like they dropped something, or they were adjusting their radio.

People don't usually admit they were texting after accidents like that, he said.

"Hopefully, it just deters people," Pierce said of the enforcement. "Nobody wants to have accidents."

A $162 fine is pretty good deterrent for people who don't want to keep writing checks, he said.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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