By Pam Hersh
The bulletin board in Small World Coffee on Witherspoon Street is actually an art exhibit of index cards. The theme of the pop art is: What Have You Learned to Appreciate Because of COVID?
The responses include sentiments we all have felt this year: hugs, kisses, grandma and grandpa, siblings, streaming services, in-person school, live concerts, classical music, jazz music, grocery store clerks, baristas, and, of course, bathrooms.
I would add one more wonky thing that I never would have said prior to COVID – data. More specifically, I now treasure decision-making based on data and how one small data-induced step on my part can lead to one giant step forward for everyone.
While most individuals including yours truly have been obsessing over COVID data, Princeton Police Department Sgt. Thomas R. Murray has been poring over traffic data. But actually, Sgt. Murray, a Princeton native who has been with the department since 1991, is far ahead of the data curve because traffic data have been his thing since 2005.
Immersed in COVID data, I realize that there is nothing I can do other than take personal responsibility for my behavior – get a vaccine, wear a mask, keep my distance, and refrain from street rage when others fail to do what I am doing.
Essentially, that is what Sgt. Murray is asking all Princetonians to do about driving. On Monday, May 10, the Princeton Police Department. under the leadership of Sgt. Murray, launched the “Limit It” Traffic Safety Initiative, a program encouraging individuals to take a voluntary pledge to follow the rules of the road and abandon all distracted driving. The program, Sgt. Murray said, was inspired by data that indicate distracted driving, like a virus, is spreading and is deadly. Data have shown that reading a text and/or focusing on a GPS unit contained within the interior of a vehicle while traveling at 55 mph is like driving the full length of a football field while blindfolded. There is no vaccination to prevent this threat to our health and well-being. The only course of action is responsible personal behavior.
The goal of the program, according to its mission statement, is to “seek individual motorist compliance with all current New Jersey motor vehicle laws by having the individual operator take a pledge, and thus make a commitment, to taking full ownership and responsibility of/for their own actions while operating a motor vehicle on both public and private roadways both within and around Princeton. Instead of concentrating on the actions of others, which is inevitably out of their control.”
“We are asking that motorists first take a good look at themselves and their respective driving habits and make any necessary adjustments in order to lead by example and do their part in keeping our roadways safe for all users (other motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians alike),” said Sgt. Murray, a 1982 Princeton High School graduate who returned to Princeton after he graduated from Washington and Lee University with a degree in economics.
Data drove Sgt. Murray and his colleagues to the conclusion that the police must try a non-punitive approach to responsible driving. This past year, even though the volume on the roads is lower than it was in the pre-pandemic era, accidents are at the same level.
“On average we have 900 incidents per year. This past year, even though at times the traffic on the roads has been reduced by up to 80%, the number of accidents remains the same. The main cause of accidents 75-80% of the time is simply driver inattentiveness.
“The COVID-19 pandemic and all of its associated concerns have served to contribute to already existing distractions as an individual’s respective lifestyles and work schedules have been altered, individuals now have employment and finance related concerns, and people have been forced to deviate from previously existing habits and schedules. In addition, the same time frame has brought about a sudden increase in the amount of both pedestrian and bicyclist activity within the community, thus increasing the potential for conflict between motor vehicles and pedestrians and bicyclists, especially since data show that distracted behavior among walkers and bikers also has been increasing during the pandemic,” Sgt. Murray said.
Traffic safety data compiled by the Princeton Police Department’s Traffic Safety Bureau has revealed that approximately 75-80% of all of the accidents occurring within the Municipality of Princeton are directly attributed to driver inattention on behalf of the at-fault motorist.
“The majority of these accidents are the direct result of involved at-fault motorists being distracted by electronics and gadgets within the car in the form of cell phones and GPS units and/or by simply not exercising the required amount of due caution and circumspection while operating their vehicle (examples include following too closely, not adjusting for wet road conditions, not taking the time to check their surroundings prior to backing and/or turning, and not taking the time to come to a complete stop at posted stop signs),” Sgt. Murray said.
The pledge, he added, “should also serve as a reminder that driving is a privilege and not a right and should be viewed as such at all times and not be abused and/or taken for granted. This is an entirely new and unique traffic safety initiative that was designed and tailored specifically to address the needs and concerns of our specific community.”
The initiative is voluntary and open to all licensed motorists residing in Princeton. To participate, an individual simply has to: visit the Princeton Police Department; sign the pledge; and receive the special bumper magnet that will publicize one’s support for non-distracted safe driving campaign.
I have one small suggestion for driving traffic to the initiative. Since far more people want to make the trip to Small World Coffee rather than the Princeton Police Station, there should be a signup sheet and bumper magnets available at Small World Coffee on Witherspoon Street.
And I am adding more index cards to the Small World appreciation board: Attentive Drivers
For more information, contact Sgt. Thomas Murray of the Princeton Police Department’s Traffic Safety Bureau at 609-921-2100, ext. 1879.