UMPD works to decrease texting and driving

By Alexandra Graziano

Flickr/mrJasonWeaver

As more and more vehicular accidents are attributed to drivers distracted by texting, there is the increasing challenge for police officers to enforce the new texting while driving laws as well as educate drivers about the dangers of doing so.

Since the fall 2011 University of Massachusetts officer Mark Whelihan and other UMass police officers on the Community Outreach team have been running a campaign against texting while driving, with the hope of educating students and raising public awareness of the pressing, but often overlooked issue.

As a community outreach officer, Whelihan works to be actively involved in the University and Amherst community, providing people with information they need to stay safe and be informed.

The officers also maintain an active campus presence in order to be aware of arising issues and work to develop educational programs to combat them.

One of the most prominent issues they have found within the past few years has been the issue of distracted driving. In response, officers started out by identifying areas where there have been a significant number of people sighted texting while operating a motor vehicle.

“We have been stopping people and giving them a written warning and a copy of the law. It’s working very well,” Whelihan said.

Whelihan emphasized their focus on education and that – though it is at the officer’s discretion to issue citations – they are more focused on individuals realizing the significance of the issue. A first time offender can however be issued a citation with a $100 fine and second offenses with a $250 fine.

Whelihan said the difficulty of identifying individuals that are texting, but despite this challenge said they have found their new program to be very successful.

“We are trying to educate the public. With the amount of pedestrians and motor-vehicle traffic, it’s only a matter of time before someone has a very bad crash,” he said.

Despite the officers’ efforts there are still accidents in the area attributed to texting while driving. Whelihan told of a recent incident where a construction worker driving back from a job was rear-ended by a young woman. When he got out of his truck to ask her what happened, apologizing, she admitted she had been texting when the accident occurred.

A 2009 United States Department of Transportation report on distracted driving said that sending or receiving a text takes the driver’s eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, which the report found, when driving at 55 mph was like driving the length of a football field with your eyes closed.

The community outreach program plans to continue their campaign against distracted driving and hopes to include more programs in the future. One of which would incorporate bringing distracted driving simulators onto campus.

Whelihan said that the most important thing that a UMass student or Amherst community member should know is that the messages can wait.

“There is nothing you can text that can’t wait until you are in a safe place to do it,” he said.

Alexandra Graziano can be reached [email protected]