Watch For Me Campaign Ruffles Some Feathers
Drivers who don’t yield to pedestrians might find themselves earning a ticket during an police operation that uses a plainclothes police officer to catch violators.
Watch For Me NC, the Triangle-wide education campaign that began this past August, entered its enforcement phase in October and will continue throughout the month.
The program is intended to increase enforcement and awareness of the state law requiring drivers to stop for people in crosswalks. The Triangle routinely ranks as one of the most dangerous cities for pedestrians. Around 400 people are struck annually and around 350 of those are injured or killed.
As part of the campaign, state Department of Transportation trained police officers — around 12 from the Raleigh Police Department and some from surrounding areas and colleges — on how to enforce these laws.
“They are using targeted enforcement,” said to Jennifer Baldwin, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the City of Raleigh Office of Transportation Planning. “Their intent is to make this an education campaign; their intent is not to issue a bunch of citations.”
How Enforcement Works
Sgt. J.J. King of the Raleigh Police Department said they are focusing their enforcement efforts on the most dangerous intersections in Raleigh, especially the crosswalk in front of the John M. Alexander YMCA on Hillsborough Street.
It’s one of the most dangerous roads in Raleigh for pedestrians, according to the UNC Highway Safety Research Center and reported by The News & Observer.
During an enforcement period, the RPD places a decoy plainclothes officer and sets up stopping zones at safe distances after the crosswalk to warn or ticket motorists.
“The officer initially will step into the crosswalk to signal that he is going to cross the crosswalk and, as soon as the vehicle complies, crosses the street,” King said.
He said most people let the officer cross, but often the officer was forced to stop mid-way across the crosswalk to account for traffic on the other side of the road.
Those who fail to yield are pulled over and issued a warning and a pamphlet explaining the program. Those driving recklessly are ticketed. About 50 drivers received warnings during a one-day stopping operation at the Hillsborough Street crosswalk two weeks ago, while six received tickets.
Despite the increased presence of police at these intersections, most drivers have not complained about the enforcement.
“I had one complaint that I received about the Hillsborough Street crosswalk serving the YMCA,” Baldwin said. “But, we received several complaints by pedestrians and people (using the crosswalk) at the YMCA previously, and I forwarded that information to the RPD.”
Jessica Tisdale, who received a ticket for failing to yield to a pedestrian at the Hillsborough Street crosswalk, intends to contest the charges.
“It’s around a $230 ticket, which slightly ridiculous,” she said. “I plan to fight it, saying that he wasn’t in the crosswalk. Because, in my mind, when I was going through there, I was lawfully abiding, I wasn’t going to hurt anyone or hit anyone.”
Tisdale said she had not heard of the Watch For Me NC campaign before her ticket, but looked it up afterward. As a regular patron of the Hillsborough Street crosswalk, she thinks the campaign in general is a good idea.
“I’m a pedestrian in the neighborhood; I ride my bike, I take the bus,” she said. “And I think that’s a great program. But to write me a ticket is ridiculous.”
Tisdale admits she was on her cell phone while driving, but that remains legal in North Carolina. And, she said, the crosswalk needs some improvements. There are no light signals for either the driver or the pedestrian, just a painted crosswalk on the street.
“The thing with that crosswalk right there, is there’s no lights there, it’s just a crosswalk,” she said. “A lot of people stand there and chit chat with their gym friends, and they’re not necessarily actively moving. It’s a bad area in general.”
Tisdale said the money spent on this enforcement would be better served making the crosswalk more visible to drivers.
“I don’t know if this sounds to other people like entrapment,” she said. “But I just think the whole system of putting an officer in plain clothing out there is not OK.”
But King said this system is well established for enforcement operations.
“The use of a plainclothes officer in the crosswalk — that’s something that the state has adopted through the UNC research lab,” he said. “So this is not something we just concocted. It’s something that’s being done across the state, and it’s been vetted through the state attorneys.”
The education aspect of the program began in August, with bus ads and visits to Citizens Advisory Council meetings near where the enforcement was to take place.
The police, Baldwin said, “wouldn’t do any enforcement without a large-scale education campaign, because they didn’t think it would be fair to start enforcing without letting people know.”
According to the Watch For Me NC website, this enforcement and increased presence will expected to continue throughout 2012 and beyond.
“I think with any kind of enforcement you’re going to have complaints,” Baldwin said. “They’re only ticketing and giving citation to the truly dangerous behaviors. For example, there was someone who yielded to a pedestrian and another car passed on the right. They’re mostly just giving warnings. We understand that we need to change behavior and issuing warnings is really needed to change that behavior.”
The campaign is complementing the city’s upcoming comprehensive pedestrian plan, Baldwin said.
“Pedestrians and drivers have similar experiences with people who don’t know the laws that pertain to North Carolina pedestrians,” she said. “They don’t know what the laws are or don’t follow the laws. We’re hopefully educating people and bringing a new away of showing people what the law is.”