City Police Crack Down on Reckless Drivers

10 March 2009 by Paul Franz

State grant pays police overtime to battle epidemic

Officer Matt Odenthal knows this could be an angry driver. The vehicle's back left brake and running lights are out. The registration tags expired a month ago. "She's not going to be happy," he says matter-of-factly. The cruiser sirens wail, and the blue Hyundai SUV quickly pulls over on the north side of Harrisburg Avenue.

Odenthal, a four-year city veteran, is relieved. The driver turns out to be apologetic and cooperative. "It's a bummer," the driver, Kelly, tells a reporter. Declining to give her last name, she said: "It happens. But they need to be doing this sort of thing." Odenthal's traffic stop is part of a city traffic policing program made possible through a state grant, Drive Safe PA. Through the grant, the city gets money from the state to pay for the overtime needed to staff special traffic details.

Two to three officers run the details in four-hour blocks. They drive the busiest streets, and stake out areas where there are complaints of reckless drivers. "There are a lot of aggressive drivers here [in the city]," says Odenthal, who has made traffic stops in the city for two years now. "It's pretty bad here. It's a major problem."

Under the program, Lancaster city police cited 1,081 drivers in the past two years for offenses such as reckless driving and failure to obey traffic signs. Sgt. Todd Umstead, a city police spokesman, said state money allows the city to run about 20 of the special traffic details every three months.

'An epidemic'

Odenthal says it's not enough. "High priority calls don't give us the time to patrol traffic," he said. "We do our best to cover it, but we have to deal with major incidents such as stabbings and shootings."

Umstead said the state provided $10,000 for the traffic details in 2008. Community leaders agree that it's money well-spent. They believe reckless driving in the city is a real problem.

"Speeding, red-light running and coasting through stop signs is an epidemic," said Jack Howell, president of the Lancaster Alliance. "We need to change our driving behavior." "Common sense and courtesy were never a requirement to get a driver's license," said David Greiner, a monitoring and evidence specialist for the Lancaster Community Safety Coalition.

Greiner argues the problem has gotten so bad that he can't walk to Central Market from his home near Musser Park without having vehicles nearly hit him as he crosses intersections. In addition to the city's crime problems, he said reducing reckless driving incidents is an equally serious quality-of-life and safety issue.

"[Traffic enforcement] shouldn't come as an afterthought," he said. "You put people in jail for pulling a knife or gun on someone — a car has the same ability to hurt people." Greiner, former president of the Lancaster Council of Neighborhoods, a neighborhood watch program, said he's written letters to legislators asking them for action and more funding to tackle the issue. "We need to make our streets safer," he said.

Howell argues a different approach to urban planning might provide a better long-term solution to the problem. Angled parking and more visible painted crosswalks at major intersections are among his proposals.

Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray agrees that tougher enforcement alone won't solve the problem. "It has an effect in the short-run," he said, "but whether it has an effect in the long-run, I'm not sure." He said the city is banking on an influx of federal money to fund these traffic calming measures. "We've got a lot of catching up to do," Gray said.

Odenthal views it as another way to enforce public safety, but people shouldn't see traffic stops as a mere nuisance.

"Our purpose isn't to go out and ruin people's days," he said. "We are out to make sure people are driving safe and valid."

"It's educating people about how to drive and holding them accountable if they break the law," Greiner said.

You play, you pay

Over two hours, Odenthal pulls over three more drivers in quick succession on two of the city's most congested roads at the afternoon rush hour: North Queen and North Prince streets. Ironically, he said one of the worst intersections happens to be right down the block from police headquarters at West Chestnut and North Queen streets.

Odenthal's training gives him a keen eye in hunting down offenders. Driving in the city with a busted mirror or tail light is just asking for a chance to get pulled over. And he's surprised at what he sometimes discovers.

Routine traffic stops sometimes yield bigger arrests. "I've found sawed-off shotguns, ounces of cocaine and marijuana," he said. According to statistics provided by the Bureau of Police, city traffic stops funded under the Drive Safe program yielded 32 arrests for felonies such as illegal drug and gun possession in the last two years.

"It is what it is," he said.

The other two stops Odenthal makes are minor. One minivan has a broken back window. Another driver didn't have his license plate attached to the back of the car.

A woman driving a white Volkswagen Golf turns left onto West Walnut Street from North Queen Street without signaling. Odenthal's cruiser makes a hard left from the right lane and slowly creeps up behind the car. By now, the driver knows she's done something wrong. She flashes an apprehensive look in her rear-view mirror. Odenthal waits for an opening on the side of the street. He presses a red switch next to a computer to turn on the sirens. The driver quickly pulls over.

Failing to signal carries a hefty fine — $109.50. And Odenthal says in these hard economic times, people just don't like spending money. "It's pretty pricey," he says as he walks back to his cruiser after citing the driver. "She wasn't very happy."

But tough enforcement is the only way things will change, he believes. "She probably would do it again if I just warned her," he said.

"It sends a message," Mayor Gray said.

Jack Howell just hopes stronger police enforcement through Drive Safe isn't a temporary measure. "We can't just have one crackdown and expect people to change their behavior," he said. Umstead said state funding will continue through March. But the future is uncertain. After March, the program will be reevaluated by the state. "Who knows, with economic times being what they are," Umstead said.

Paul Franz is a Sunday News staff writer. Used by permission.