‘Pandemic amongst itself’ IMPD works to curb reckless driving, crack down on violators in school zones

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INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department stopped dozens of drivers Tuesday in a school zone on the city’s near northwest side.

Officers with IMPD conducted a concentrated effort in the area of N. Tibbs Ave. and W. 30th St. near the Cardinal Ritter High School to look for drivers committing traffic violations like speeding, failure to use a turn signal, or people distracted by other objects like cellphones.

“We’ve been writing tickets all school season already. All this has done for us is really kind of put a spotlight on it and put a little more emphasis on it,” said Fred Ilnicki, a captain with IMPD’s Traffic Branch.

“Sometimes drivers are in such a hurry and the world is so confined, they don’t realize they’re even putting themselves in danger by going too fast,” added Ilnicki.

Officer Catherine Hedges was one of several monitoring drivers’ speed by radar gun Tuesday during the operation.

“The reason why I stopped you is that you were doing 53 in a 25 mph school zone,” said Hedges to a driver.

“We’re not out here to get you guys or make you late for work or anything else. The problem that we’ve got is this is a school zone, we’ve got kids out and we need to make sure that we drive safely,” she told another driver.

Two state legislators recently laid out a plan to address a major increase in deadly traffic accidents in Marion County and across the state. In Marion County, the number of traffic fatalities increased by 31% when comparing 2019 to 2020, and statewide, that number by more than 8%.

As part of their plan to curb reckless driving, state representatives Mitch Gore and Blake Johnson asked Governor Holcomb to consider their request for a portion of the remaining $350 million in Coronavirus Relief Funds (CVRF) to be put towards helping increase public safety agencies’ efforts to enforce traffic laws.

The pair also cited recent, deadly incidents as part of the ‘why’ behind their request to utilize these “use-it-or-lose-it” funds for something like traffic enforcement efforts.

IMPD said these recent incidents have not necessarily changed how they are enforcing traffic laws, but rather, they’ve shone a greater spotlight on the seriousness of these traffic violations and why they have enforcement efforts in place to tackle them, especially in places like school zones.

For perspective, last week, officers with IMPD’s traffic branch conducted around 70 hours of enforcement in school zones, which resulted in the following:

  • 281 traffic stops
  • 376 citations issued
  • 36 warnings

It’s important to keep in mind that a traffic stop could result in multiple citations issued, which is why the number of tickets written is more than the number of stops conducted. The number of citations issued also doesn’t include possible drivers who may be operating with a license suspended prior. Individuals could be summonsed to court on those charges.

IMPD said all officers, not just from the Traffic Branch, remain on the lookout daily for reckless drivers on the roads across the city and in school zones.

“Reckless driving, by definition, is really just driving that would put somebody or themselves in danger,” said Ilnicki. He said this could be anything from speeding to changing lanes without signaling, texting and driving, or driving aggressively, just to name a few.

Not only could there be serious consequences for these actions, legally speaking, but in addition to endangering others, people who are driving recklessly are also taking the risk that they could claim a life.

“From what I’ve seen and having a background in crash investigations for many years, it goes way beyond that,” said Ilnicki. “You’re talking about people’s lives being changed. Not only the victim’s family or the victim themselves, but even the person who they’re not intending to go out and hurt somebody but their actions are so careless and self-centered that’s exactly what they’re doing.”

Several incidents recently have claimed the lives of young children in Indianapolis, including a crash in a school zone in Irvington that killed a 7-year-old girl and injured her mother and a crossing guard.

Ilnicki said, “As an officer and as a father, and now a grandfather, that is absolutely the last – you hear those runs on the radio and you just cringe because it’s not gonna be good for the families, for the victims, for the people involved, and for us.”

In hopes of encouraging drivers to be safe on the roads and look out for others before any more lives are lost or people are seriously injured, they’re conducting these school-zone-focused enforcements.

“It’s not a punishment, it’s not you know we want to give out as many tickets as possible, we just want everybody to be safe whether it’s the kids going to school, the drivers themselves,” said Ilnicki.

In late Aug., 12-year-old Saleina Marcelus was struck by a hit-and-run driver while walking across Mitthoeffer Road to her bus stop. The crash didn’t happen in a school zone, but is a reminder of the dangers reckless driving poses to innocent bystanders.

Cheryl Lawson, a bus driver with MSD of Warren Township schools, said she was on her way to the high school with a bus full of students when she came upon the scene.

“I got on my radio, called it in to let them know to my base to let them know that someone had hit a child and left her in the street and I was going to be late to the high school because I was not leaving her,” said Lawson.

Until paramedics and other first responders arrived, Lawson stayed with the young girl, who died as a result of her injuries.

Lawson wished to share a message with the family of Marcelus. She said, “I continue to pray for your healing. I know the pain that you’re going through because I have lost a child before, too.”

She never wants another family to experience the heartbreak of losing a child and she encourages people to use caution on the roads, especially when they are driving in a school zone or near a bus. As a driver with the district for more than two decades, Lawson said she sees people disregarding traffic laws daily.

“You can put on your warning lights and that is a warning for drivers to stop but they ignore it and zoom right through your stop arm not knowing where a child’s gonna come from, the left or the right,” said Lawson. “It’s been a problem for a long time even though they have warned the drivers, you run the stop arms, what can happen. They ignore that.”

Lawson said no parent, bus driver, or person on the road ever wants to experience what she saw in late August and she hopes people slow down and watch out for kids as they head to their destinations.

“To the drivers that keep ignoring the school buses when they have their warning lights on and everything, please pay attention because you don’t know if that child is going to the left or to the right and once you hit one, you can’t go back and say I’m sorry, I didn’t see them, because we put our warning lights on with enough time.”

IMPD is also reminding drivers to slow down and consider that no life is worth getting to your destination a few minutes faster.

“People drive selfishly. It’s all about how can I get from here to there and everybody else is just kind of in my way,” said Ilnicki. “Once we get out of that mindset, I think that everybody I think will be safer out here. We need to slow down. We need to plan ahead, especially with construction going on.”

“Above all, just give grace to other people. If somebody’s in the wrong lane, let them in. If somebody looks like they’re lost, give them some space,” he added.

Echoing the sentiments of legislators last week, Ilnicki that there seemed to be an increase in reckless driving as the pandemic began.

“I would definitely say it’s a pandemic amongst itself. People sort of got comfortable this last year with schools not being in session and traffic being lighter and kind of just driving how they want to drive,” he said.

IMPD also noted that reckless driving can be an indicator of another type of crime going on, which is why they take all situations very seriously.

In 2019, the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office had 78 Reckless Driving filings, where in 2020, that number increased by more than 40% to 110. So far in 2021, there have been 48 charges filed.

The MCPO said it’s important to keep in mind that in some instances, a charge of Reckless Driving may not be filed in lieu of a more serious charge. Some cases where this might be the circumstance are ones where serious injury or death is involved, resisting law enforcement, fleeing the scene of an accident, criminal recklessness, and more.

Because of that, it’s difficult to get an accurate statistical picture of the whole issue of reckless driving based on these specific statistics, said the MCPO.

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