Operation Ghost Rider targets distracted driving

By: Kara Szymanski, Julie Snyder | Shelby - Utica News | Published April 29, 2019

 As part of an effort to crack down on distracted driving along M-59, the Shelby Township Police Department put up an electronic traffic sign April 25 to remind people to pay attention while driving. The electronic sign changed three times to read, “Don’t text and drive, because I said so. Love, Mom.”

As part of an effort to crack down on distracted driving along M-59, the Shelby Township Police Department put up an electronic traffic sign April 25 to remind people to pay attention while driving. The electronic sign changed three times to read, “Don’t text and drive, because I said so. Love, Mom.”

Image from video provided by the Shelby Township Police Department

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METRO DETROIT — Law enforcement officials in Macomb and Oakland counties made a statement through an initiative called Operation Ghost Rider during National Distracted Driving Awareness Month in April.

Multiple police agencies, including members of the Michigan State Police, teamed up to crack down on distracted driving along one of the busiest thoroughfares in the metro Detroit area.

Starting April 25 and continuing through the end of the month, the amped-up police presence along M-59 was an effort to remind motorists to keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel.

Lt. Jeff Daniel, of the Shelby Township Police Department, said that the department was busy on the first day of the initiative. Daniel said police focused on the area of Hall Road from Hayes to Schoenherr roads April 25, but officers were patrolling many areas.

Daniel mentioned that the department put up an electronic traffic sign April 25 to remind people to pay attention while driving. The electronic sign said, “Don’t text and drive, because I said so. Love, Mom.”

The sign was another way to let drivers know the dangers and that police were out there watching.

“We put it out and try to warn people and do the posts about (the initiative) so everybody knows that we’re out and would rather not have to go out there and pull people over,” Daniel said.

He said the department would rather see people stop driving while they have distractions, but since people decide to, police must remind them of the dangers.

“We would much rather not have to worry about it and have people put their phones down and just drive. ... We are part of the three E’s of traffic enforcement — engineering, education and enforcement — so it’s something we focus on.”

Daniel said that distracted driving is more than just texting and driving; it’s things like petting dogs, reading the newspaper, eating, speeding, weaving or doing anything else distracting while driving.

“The way the state law is written, it focuses on texting, but it’s more than just that,” he said.

Daniel said the department would like people who have a habit of distracted driving with their phone to make it a hands-free device.

“We’re always watching, and you never know when we will be in plainclothes or a normal officer on the side of the road. It will eventually catch up to you, and you will get a ticket.”

He said that police did one four-hour detail last week with four officers, and they issued 21 citations and also made arrests for one felony and one misdemeanor for driving on suspended licenses.

Daniel said that if police found that they had an area that has a lot of trouble, the Shelby Township Police Department might extend the stepped-up enforcement into May.

Utica Police Chief Sean Coady said that Utica’s initiative started April 25 and that they were focusing on the safety of all drivers.

“The primary focus for that is going to be distracted driving, red lights and speed, which are the primary violations which cause more serious accidents, and you know, obviously, a program like this just brings to mind the safety of all motorists, and those that are involved in that activity have to be cited to send a message so that people understand that we’re out there for their safety,” said Coady.

The annual Operation Ghost Rider initiative is coordinated by the Transportation Improvement Association, or TIA.

“Even though many drivers know it’s extremely dangerous, distracted driving continues to be a major problem,” said Jim Santilli, CEO of the TIA, in a prepared statement. “As drivers, we need to care about the innocent people traveling around us by always paying attention. Together, we can stop this dangerous and preventable behavior that has sadly killed and injured far too many people.”

Operation Ghost Rider used unmarked spotter vehicles that contained a law enforcement passenger. When the spotters observed a distracted driver, they radioed a fully marked law enforcement unit to initiate a traffic stop.

In addition to the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office, participating agencies included the Auburn Hills Police Department, Chesterfield Township Police Department, Clinton Township Police Department, Michigan State Police, Shelby Township Police Department, Sterling Heights Police Department and Utica Police Department.

“Distracted drivers put themselves and everyone around them in danger,” Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham said. “No text message, social media update or any other behavior that takes your eyes off the road is worth ending a life or causing an injury. We hope Operation Ghost Rider will change driver behavior so everyone can reach their destination safely.”

Wickersham said M-59 was chosen because it is a heavily traveled route that runs through multiple municipalities before heading into Oakland County.

Wickersham said distracted driving is a civil infraction, and fines depend on where a driver was cited.

Operation Ghost Rider was revealed at a press conference in Macomb County in 2017. During a total of 18 hours, law enforcement officers conducted more than 907 traffic stops resulting in 726 citations and 34 arrests. In 2018, officers stopped 530 vehicles, issued 440 citations and made nine arrests in a six-hour period.

According to the TIA, records indicate that 77 people were killed and 7,213 were injured in 18,927 crashes involving a distracted driver in Michigan during 2018.

“It is important to remember that distracted driving is totally preventable,” said Lt. Michael Shaw, public information officer of the Michigan State Police, in a TIA press release. “Please remember that you must keep both hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road. We look forward to working with our local and county partners to educate drivers about the dangers of distracted driving.”

Drivers who use a hand-held device are four times more likely to get into a crash serious enough to cause injury, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Texting drivers are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash.

“Studies indicate that on average, a driver takes their eyes off the road for 4.6 of every 6 seconds every time they send or read a text message,” said Chief Brad Kersten, of the Chesterfield Township Police Department, in the release. “At 55 mph, that is the equivalent of driving the entire length of a football field with your eyes closed.”

In addition to conducting distracted driving education and enforcement initiatives since 2011, the TIA officially announced the Hands-Free Michigan movement on March 30, 2016, in partnership with Laurel Zimmerman, whose 16-year-old daughter, Ally, was struck by a distracted driver on Dec. 28, 2010, in the area of Romeo Plank and 32 Mile roads. The Romeo High School student later died from her injuries.

For more information about Hands-Free Michigan, visit handsfreemichigan.com.

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