By Donald Wittkowski
Ptl. Brian Teeney was on the lookout for drivers talking on the cellphone, and it didn’t take long before he spotted one on Wednesday morning.
Teeney had his Ocean City Police Department SUV parked on the shoulder of the intersection of 14th Street and Bay Avenue for just a few minutes when a man in a black pickup truck drove by with a cellphone held up to his ear.
“He’s so distracted talking on his cellphone that he didn’t even see that I’m sitting here in a police car,” Teeney said, shaking his head in amazement.
Ocean City police are on the watch for distracted drivers as part of a holiday safety campaign that will continue through the new year. Dubbed “Safe for the Holidays,” the enforcement program targets a different type of roadway danger each week in hopes of getting the message out that there will be “zero tolerance” for distracted, careless or reckless driving.
The campaign began the week of Nov. 27 by focusing on truck-route violations. Trucks are supposed to follow designated main routes in Ocean City that generally keep them out of residential neighborhoods while they are making their deliveries.
This week, the emphasis will be on distracted driving, which mainly includes talking on the cellphone and texting. On average, about nine people are killed each day and more than 1,100 are injured in traffic accidents in the United States involving distracted drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
As the use of mobile technology grows exponentially, it is not hard for police to find drivers chatting on their cellphones. Teeney noted that he pulled over three drivers in a row last Friday, within a 30-minute span, for chatting on a cellphone.
In New Jersey, fines for cellphone violations range from $200 to $400 for the first offense and $400 to $600 for the second. Drivers are fined from $600 to $800 for a third cellphone offense and risk having their license suspended for 90 days and losing three points.
New Jersey drivers, however, are allowed to talk on hands-free devices while in their car or truck.
Eating or drinking in the car, fiddling with the radio or navigation system, putting on makeup or even talking with a passenger are other examples of distracted driving. Although those activities aren’t illegal by themselves, they could result in police issuing tickets if drivers are involved in an accident, veer out of their lanes or do something else unsafe while they are distracted.
“Any type of distracted driving can lead to other traffic violations,” Teeney said.
Ocean City’s last traffic fatality involved a pedestrian who was killed by a distracted driver on July 17, 2009. Casey Anderson Feldman, 21, a senior at Fordham University, died after she was struck in a crosswalk while on her way to her summer job as a waitress in Ocean City.
Sgt. Brian Hopely, of the Ocean City Police Department’s Traffic Safety Unit, said Feldman was killed by a driver who became distracted while looking down to find a nonalcoholic beverage in the car.
“That, for Ocean City, was an important date,” Hopely said of the day Feldman was killed.
Feldman’s parents have established a foundation in her memory that is involved with a nationwide program dedicated to fighting distracted driving.
In addition to the Safe for the Holidays campaign, Ocean City police have other programs focusing on distracted driving. Hopely and other officers give a presentation each fall to Ocean City High School sophomores, juniors and seniors to stress the dangers of being distracted while behind the wheel.
Hopely explained that the holidays are a good time for police to pay extra attention to highway safety because drivers often are not. Many times, motorists are focused on their holiday shopping rather than the rules of the road, he said.
“They don’t pay attention as they normally would,” he said. “They are rushing.”
During the week of Dec. 11, police will concentrate on equipment and inspection violations, such as faulty headlights, brake lights and turn signals. Police say the equipment violations will also focus on commercial vehicles for anything that might be unsafe, including construction machinery that is not properly secured.
For the week of Dec. 18, the safety campaign will target seatbelt and child-restraint violations. Police will focus on careless driving during the week of Dec. 25.
For the campaign’s final week of Jan. 1, there will be a crackdown on speeders.
“By designating a particular issue each week, it is our hope that the local press and community members will become more aware of all traffic laws and choose to participate by compliance, making Ocean City and neighboring roads safer,” the police department said in a statement.