DPS to Enforce Traffic Laws
Published: Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 17:09
Campus visitors and Jesuits on golf carts will need to pay close attention to a new initiative by the Department of Public Safety meant to address high incidences of on-campus traffic violations.
The educational effort, which will be rolled out in three stages before DPS begins issuing citations for traffic violations this fall, comes after DPS officers conducted a survey of on-campus traffic last year.
The survey found minimal attention paid to stop signs, with a 5 percent stop sign compliance rate for golf cart drivers and a 0 percent compliance rate for bicyclers. University cars and trucks stopped 60 percent of the time, while privately owned vehicles stopped 45 percent of the time. Contractor vehicles were the most compliant, with a rate of 66 percent.
“As a department, we noticed anecdotally that people weren’t obeying traffic signs,” Chief of Police Jay Gruber said. “We noticed a lot of near misses.”
The first phase of the DPS effort, which has been in effect for the past three weeks, focuses on education. Officers in full uniform, accessorized with traffic vests, are stationed at problematic intersections during peak hours to flag down traffic law violators. DPS has operational jurisdiction only within the campus gates.
Each phase will last for several weeks with no concrete timetable in place. The second phase will expand from education to written warnings, which will not carry a fine. The third phase will combine verbal cautions, written warnings and fines issued at officers’ discretion.
“Our goal is not to give citations out,” Gruber said. “If we’re successful in the first two phases, we’d rather educate the public and have them listen to us the first time.”
Citations are university-based, and do not fall under D.C. government jurisdiction. As such, citations consist solely of fines, not driver’s license points. Careless driving carries a $100 fine, while failure to yield right-of-way is a $50 fine and failure to halt at a stop sign — a problem Gruber describes as rampant — is also a $50 fine. For every mile exceeding the campus-wide 15-mph speed limit, $5 is added to the charge.
Drivers issued citations have the right to appeal to DPS. If violators fail to pay, DPS will forward the charge to a collections agency.
Because of a recent transfer from paper records to an electronic database, traffic violation records from past years are not available. Gruber, however, said he believed DPS officers have not issued many citations. Pedestrians have not been involved in accidents, but minor accidents between vehicles have occurred.
“As we grow as a pedestrian campus we’re concerned about pedestrian versus vehicle collisions,” Gruber said.
While the department’s education efforts target vehicle operators, Gruber does not believe that students are fully absolved of culpability, citing a lack of situational awareness while crossing the street, largely due to texting.
Fr. Otto Hentz, S.J., an associate professor of theology, has driven a golf cart for the past year because his hip is injured.
“Some [students] are bent over and working on their messages or Twitter or whatever, and they’re totally absorbed. You can drive right up to them before they notice,” Hentz said. “Other times they notice, but they turn back to their conversation and don’t move.”
The police department has reached out to the management of the organizations permitted to use golf carts as part of this fall’s program. There is no separate driving protocol for the carts.
Hentz said he received no instruction prior to operating his cart.
“I think they were relying on common sense,” he said.
The nonexistent rate of compliance for bicyclists draws concern from the police department.
“We will be targeting bicyclists as well. They are bound by traffic laws when using streets. They are sometimes the worst offenders,” Gruber wrote in an email.
Avid cyclist Greg Miller (SFS ’14) disagrees with the lumping of bicyclists with other vehicular traffic.
“I think making cyclists stop at stop signs hurts them more than letting them go through them. I think on campus, since all of the roads are privately owned, the university could definitely create such a possibility that doesn’t necessarily conform with D.C. traffic laws,” Miller said.
Three weeks into the educational effort, Gruber sees a noticeable change in driver habits.
“People aren’t very happy. It’s not something we’ve done here very often, so it’s a culture change,” Gruber said. “Anecdotally speaking, I can see one of the major intersections outside my window and there’s major compliance. People absolutely know what we’re doing, especially university employees who drive vehicles.”
The department will conduct follow-up surveys after each phase, using the same metrics as the original survey.