Distracted driving enforcement initiative targets M-59

By: Sarah Wojcik | Online Only | Published April 25, 2017

 Phillip Parker, a Michigan State Police trooper, sits in an unmarked car, driven by Transportation Improvement Association CEO Jim Santilli, as he looks for distracted drivers along M-59 April 25.

Phillip Parker, a Michigan State Police trooper, sits in an unmarked car, driven by Transportation Improvement Association CEO Jim Santilli, as he looks for distracted drivers along M-59 April 25.

Photo by Donna Agusti

METRO DETROIT -- On April 25, the Transportation Improvement Association, Michigan State Police and other participating agencies rolled out Operation Ghostrider, which will crack down on distracted drivers traveling on M-59 from Heydenreich to Dequindre roads.

A law enforcement “ghost” officer will ride as a passenger in an unmarked vehicle and scout for distracted drivers, radio them into a uniformed officer, and the uniformed officer will make a traffic stop.

It is up to the police officer if he or she will issue a citation, depending on the situation. The point of the initiative is to change drivers’ behavior through education and enforcement in order to increase their safety and the safety of those around them.

Points and fines for distracted and careless driving vary among jurisdictions, but can amount to up to three points and a fine of $200-400 for careless driving.

Jim Santilli, CEO of the TIA and the chair of the governor’s distracted driving action team, said Operation Ghostrider would primarily take place from April 25 to April 27.

“Agencies will also be out at other times as they have manpower available to conduct enforcement on M-59, and in the next few weeks, the state police will have motorcycle units as well doing additional enforcing,” Santilli said.

Santilli said he is hoping to collect data from participating agencies and work with other agencies, such as the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police and the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, to promote the program statewide.

Capt. Monica Yesh, of the MSP, said distracted driving is increasing, despite an increased awareness of the dangers of distracted driving. As a result, she said the MSP is stepping up its enforcement against distracted driving statewide.

“I don’t want you to think we’re trying to be sneaky,” Yesh said. “The fact remains that when a police officer pulls up beside somebody, they throw their phone down, and we can’t catch them.”

She said distracted driving is more than looking at cellphones. She gave personal examples of spotting a woman eating a bowl of cereal while driving with her legs, a man shaving, and a woman simultaneously applying makeup and smoking.

“We have crashes where the deceased at-fault driver still had the phone in their hand. I find that very disturbing,” she said. “I cannot emphasize how important it is to pay attention to your driving.”

A few weeks ago, Yesh said she attempted counting the number of distracted drivers on her way from Lansing to Detroit. She said she stopped counting at 20 before she reached Novi.

Nick Palaian, an agent for participating agency State Farm and former MSP trooper, said surveys conducted by State Farm showed that every age group admitted to the temptation to drive while distracted.

Of those surveyed, Palaian said 91 percent owned a smartphone and more than half of those used them while driving, despite it being a distraction. Reasons for engaging in such behavior, he said, included “improved efficiency, need to stay in touch, habit, searching for information on the Internet, and seeing something they want to share.”

He said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 80 percent of all collisions are due to driver inattentiveness.

“Distracted driving is preventable, but it’s up to us when behind the wheel,” he said.

During an April 25 press conference held on the Mound Road overpass above M-59, officials recognized the winner of a high school billboard design contest aimed at curbing distracted driving. James Hegarty, 18, of Grand Blanc High School, received a $500 check from State Farm for his design, “Do the Math. Don’t Drive Distracted,” which features a phone in a hand, a plus symbol, a vehicle, an equal sign and a crashed vehicle.

Santilli said he is currently working on House Bill 4466, which proposes drivers only be allowed to use voice-operated and hands-free devices.