Drivers tempted to use their phone while behind the wheel in Johnston this month may want to think twice.
Police Chief Richard Tamburini and Deputy Chief Joseph Razza, along with Capt. Christopher Correia, are leading an initiative throughout April to crack down on drivers who choose to make a call or shoot a text behind the wheel. The push is part of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Distracted Driving Awareness Month.
“When you get your road test to get your license, would you pull out your cell phone and check your cell phone when you're taking your road test? ‘Oh, no, chief,’” Tamburini said, simulating conversations he has had before about distracted driving. “Well, then, why would you pull it out after you get your license? You’re creating a significant safety situation, not only for you, but for other drivers and pedestrians.”
The hands-free law went into effect in Rhode Island on June 1, 2018. According to a description of the law from the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, drivers are not allowed to hold a phone or other wireless device and headphones are not permitted. Bluetooth wireless technology and other hands-free accessories are allowed.
The first offense for violating the statute carries a $100 fine, which can be waived for first offenders if they prove they bought a hands-free device.
“We stepped up what we should be doing in an effort to not only educate the public into it but also to enforce the [hands-free] law,” Razza said.
The department kept an especially watchful eye on April 11, which was Distracted Driving Awareness Day. Razza said that according to numbers Correia provided, there were 23 stops alone throughout the day. There were 11 summonses and 12 warnings issued for “mobile telephone usage by a motor vehicle operator.”
There were 15 other similar summonses issued in April prior to that date.
“The chief totally bought into April being Distracted Driving Month,” Razza said. “So the chief put out a campaign and basically it was two-fold – not only to go out and enforce the law, but also to educate the public. So we had extra officers on the road for the 11th.”
Razza specifically acknowledged Correia’s role in the leading the charge and getting officers committed to more stringent enforcement.
“Capt. Correia really took the bull by the horns … and really made sure that this came to fruition,” Razza said. “He actively got the guys to go out there and he got the guys to really buy into it.”
The department has made a habit of using increased patrols for the sake of safety on the roads for some time now. For the last couple of decades, Tamburini has run the Johnston Accident Reduction Enforcement, or JARE, program.
Anywhere between two and four officers will be assigned to focus specifically on vehicles that aren’t “roadworthy” for various reasons. Tamburini said those officers do not answer radio calls, and they are on the lookout for broken windows, garbage bags covering shattered windows, tinted windows, cars without license plates and more.
“Johnston Accident Reduction Enforcement is actually a campaign that the chief started when he first came in here, and basically what it does is it gets extra officers out on the street to enforce motor vehicle code – everything,” Razza said.
Tamburini said the overtime for JARE officers is written into the budget as a line item. He said it is important to communicate the litany of ways a driver can be distracted, and the issue has become pervasive.
“What about tinted windows?” Tamburini said, recounting previous conversations he’s had about potential causes of distracted driving. “What about when you hang all that stuff on the rearview mirror? ‘That’s distracted?’ I said, well, it’s obstructing your view, isn’t it? They really have no idea. Driving with your car full of snow, is that distracted? How about not putting your windshield wipers on when it’s raining hard? Is that distracted?”
According to the National Safety Council, at least nine Americans die and 100 are injured in distracted driving crashes every day. The NHTSA website notes that 3,166 people died in accidents caused by distracted driving in 2017.
The Johnston Police Department’s April push is an effort to cut into those figures.
“We try to get the message out,” Tamburini said. “It’s important to communicate that, but again sometimes it just doesn't sink in. You see out there, it’s all over the place.”