Why did the Boonton undercover police officers cross the road? To target distracted drivers who don't yield to pedestrians in crosswalks.
The officers, dressed in plain clothes crossed Main and Church streets over and over again on Monday to bring attention to pedestrian safety while cracking down on distracted drivers.
There were 16 pedestrians struck by vehicles in Boonton between 2013 and 2015, according to Federal Highway Administration data. Thirty-one percent of the crashes were a result of distracted driving, according to the Rutgers Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation (CAIT).
“Pedestrian safety is an issue for all walkable towns, especially a historic Main Street like Boonton's. It's a narrow County-owned thoroughfare with lots of shops, restaurants and pedestrian-attracting businesses,” said Boonton Mayor Matthew DiLauri.
Boonton is not alone. New Jersey ranks 15th in the nation when it comes to pedestrian fatalities, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Boonton Police Chief David Mayhood estimates about five pedestrians struck per year is typical for a Morris County town.
Mayhood said he remembers three particularly bad ones over the last 10 years in town, where the victims suffered irreversible injuries. One crash, in 2015, ended in a fatality, the chief said.
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DiLauri was elected that year and he said it was one of the first things he wanted to tackle. So the town applied for a Street Smart grant. TransOptions coordinates pedestrian safety grants that provide money for law enforcement and education.
TransOptions, a non-profit transportation organization, is leading the Street Smart effort in Boonton, after completing similar campaigns across northwestern New Jersey.
Street Smart’s “check your vital signs” slogan emphasizes safe travel roles and responsibilities to pedestrians and motorists. The vital signs are displayed on tip cards, posters, banners and street signs throughout the community and in local businesses as a visual reminder for drivers and pedestrians.
Boonton received $10,000 through the program with $9,000 from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The money will cover police overtime for enforcement at crosswalks.
The remainder of the money came from the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority and pays for a public awareness program that includes street signs.
Special Officer Mario Santulli said he is surprised by how often he encounters distracted drivers. He said most of them are distracted by either texting and phone calls.
What makes it doubly confounding, he said, is that car manufacturers have done a lot to get those phones out of drivers’ hands.
“Most cars now have Bluetooth,” he said. “That is the first thing I do when I get in the car — turn on the Bluetooth.”
So Santulli and other officers are spending time downtown in October and November dressed in plain clothes stepping into crosswalks looking to catch people not paying attention.
“I almost got hit,” Santulli said.
They have been writing a lot of tickets, he said. The most frequent times for catching offenders is during the morning commute and between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. when children are dismissed from school.
Mayhood said it’s a 2-point driver's license violation with fines that start at $85 for each summons.