INDIANAPOLIS — On Thursday, Democratic State Representatives Blake Johnson and Mitch Gore led their Statehouse colleagues in introducing a plan to address reckless driving in Indiana.
“Reckless driving in all of its forms: speeding, dangerous maneuvers, disregarding school zones, is at an all time high across our city and state,” said Johnson.
“I know from firsthand experience, police officers across the state are really fed up, as most Hoosiers are, with what they’re seeing on the roads. I’m getting really tired of getting alerts throughout the night that somebody’s been seriously injured or killed,” said Gore.
In 2020, both statewide and in Marion County, the Indianapolis legislators said there was a massive increase in fatal traffic accidents despite the COVID-19 pandemic, its stay-at-home orders and more people working from home.
“To put it into perspective, traffic fatalities increased from 31% from 2019 to 2020, statewide they increased by about 8% and both of these outpace the national increase of 7%,” said Johnson. “That 7% on its own is the largest single-year spike in vehicle fatalities for nearly a century here in the U.S.”
He continued, “In Indianapolis, that equates to 135 people killed in traffic collisions, 135 families torn apart in most cases as a part of a preventable public health crisis.”
Gore said although traffic volume decreased around 12% nationally, the number of collisions and traffic fatalities went “through the roof, especially in Marion County.”
The two legislators are calling on Governor Eric Holcomb to allocate a portion of the remaining estimated $350 million in Coronavirus Relief Funds (CVRF) to help increase public safety agencies’ efforts to enforce traffic laws.
Part of their request to the governor included allowing Indiana State Police and local agencies to apply for dollars, without a match requirement, to pay for overtime for officers working traffic enforcement details.
The letter read, in part, “There is recent precedent for such action. Our most recent budget appropriated American Rescue Plan (ARP) dollars to body cams for the brave men and women of ISP, and created a grant program for local law enforcement agencies to purchase body cams, as well.”
It continued, “if body cams, stab vests, and hazard pay are allowable expenditures under the CARES and ARP rules, a reckless driving abatement program would be, as well.”
Gore and Johnson also asked that a portion of the funds be made available to county prosecutors to help ease the additional workload that would likely come with increased enforcement.
The remaining millions in the CVRF are essentially “use-it-or-lose-it,” meaning they must be spent by the end of 2021. According to Gore, the only person who can decide where funds are allocated under the CVRF is Holcomb.
“I think he’s a conscientious person, we know he understands the severity of this issue so we are eager to see what he thinks after they’ve had time to review our proposal,” said Gore.
According to Gore and Johnson, the letter sent to the governor has been met with support by the Indiana Sheriffs’ Association, the Indiana State Fraternal Order of Police, the Indiana Association of Chiefs of Police, and prosecutors across the state.
“We’re tired of day after day seeing tragic headlines that lives are lost. We’re tired of driving these streets every day and seeing the degree firsthand of which people are disregarding the law and safety of others. Perhaps most of all, we are tired of reckless drivers getting away with it,” said Johnson.
The proposed allocation of funds also comes on the heels of several recent traffic fatalities, including the death of a school-aged girl in Irvington last week. A crossing guard and the girl’s mother were also injured in the crash.
“I had a 7-year-old die in my district just this last week. A reckless driver ran a red light and it took a 7-year-old’s life,” Johnson said.
Gore said, “It seems like everybody has a story lately about some traumatic experience that they’ve had on the road.”
For Jordan Updike and his wife, they experienced this Wednesday night when they said a driver disregarded a red light downtown in the area of New Jersey and Ohio streets and struck their SUV.
“We had this green light, we entered the intersection and from the corner of our eyes we saw this vehicle just blasting through the red light,” said Updike.
He said he believes his car is totaled after the crash and they are now left without a way to get around. Just hours after the accident, the couple was planning to leave on a road trip, now cancelled, but they are grateful it wasn’t worse and that they were able to walk away from the crash alive.
“There actually were pedestrians that were around who witnessed it and they were kind of yelling at the guy for running through the red light,” said Updike. “Had we been 10 or 15 feet in one direction, that would’ve taken them out, if we had been half second earlier or a half a second later, it could’ve been much worse than it absolutely was.”
Updike said his family uses alternative methods of transportation often like bicycles or public transit, but even with the somewhat limited time they spend on the roads, he said he noticed a change during the pandemic in the way people were driving.
“There was a few months or so when there weren’t many people on the road people felt like they could do anything they want,” he said.
Updike said he also wants to point out, these problems have existed before the pandemic, even though he saw the problem get worse when it began.
“A few years back I lived on Mass Ave. and spent a year, I sold my car and I was like just going on transit and bicycle and I got hit on a bicycle six times while driving legally in the downtown area,” he said. “People get really comfortable with not having any consequences.”
“This is a problem that is killing Hoosiers and hurting Hoosiers every day and so it’s gonna take more than just continuing to do what we’ve done.”
Updike said he supports attempting solutions, but feels that there needs to be something much greater to address reckless driving in Indy and across the state beyond just enforcement efforts.
“We can increase some enforcement, and do more of some of the things that we’ve been doing for years in years but at the end of the day that’s not going to solve the actual core problem,” said Updike. “This is a car-centric culture that prioritizes cars over the lives of pedestrians, bicyclists and frankly kids as we saw last week.”
“We have to be cognizant to the fact that this is not just one problem of enforcement, which it is, or design, which it is, or attitudes, which it is, it is a complex problem and I think we should be looking to countries who have done much better job than we do here,” he said.
Gore said the request for this funding is just the start of a bigger conversation they plan to continue.
“Here in our community, for example, the men and women of IMPD and other local agencies are just going from call to call and run to run, answering calls for service,” said Gore. “When you have limited resources like our police agencies do, you have to allocate people where they’re needed the most and often that’s not traffic enforcement.”
He continued, “That’s why you can’t simply tell IMPD or ISP or any local or state or county agency, ‘do more traffic enforcement.’ There simply isn’t enough money, there simply aren’t enough officers. So that’s why we’re proposing this money be used to help locals pay for overtime expenses.”
FOX59 reached out to the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department on their traffic enforcement efforts across the county. A spokesperson for the department shared:
The IMPD has increased our traffic enforcement efforts throughout Marion County. We will continue to focus our enforcement in high traffic, high crash, and school zones. Recently, the IMPD partnered with city county councilors and the community to add targeted enforcement in response to community concerns. In addition to law enforcement efforts, the community must help our efforts by being responsible and respectful on our roadways. We will continue to work with the community and elected officials to find solutions to the reckless and dangerous driving behavior impacting our neighborhoods.Spokesperson, IMPD
Public information officer, William Young said some of the most common things their department sees when it comes to traffic enforcement is distracted and aggressive driving. They’ve also seen a large number of crashes with bodily injury and/or fatalities in recent times.
“You’d be surprised, I made a traffic stop this morning on a young lady who was doing makeup while she was driving, as well as not having her safety belt on, as well as disregarding a red light,” said Young.
He said their agency is focusing on not only enforcing traffic laws and being responsive to the community, but also by educating on the rules of the road and making sure people are holding themselves responsible as they get behind the wheel of a vehicle.
“We’re always open to additional funding here at the police department, whatever vessel that comes through so that our officers can go out and do traffic enforcement, however, we don’t just want to do enforcement, we want to be more of an educator,” he said.
Introducing legislation to address reckless driving
Johnson and Gore shared Thursday, their plan to introduce legislation in the 2022 session of the Indiana General Assembly, which would allow for cities to install traffic cameras in school zones.
Although the first part of their plan they laid out to allocate funds is an immediate request from the governor, and not an official bill, this part will take more time and depends whether they can get a hearing in the upcoming session.
Currently, according to a 2008 attorney general opinion, state law bans cities from using traffic cameras. Johnson said this ‘greatly diminishes’ the tools local governments have to enforce the law.
“Simply put, the state has the ability to address reckless driving we simply need to allow local governments the freedom to do so.”
There have been several traffic camera bills in recent years that were shot down by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, but Johnson said there are others on both sides who support it, so they won’t stop their efforts.
“There are some things that just need to go beyond politics and when it comes to the safety for Hoosiers, especially when we’re seeing such stark increases, I think we can get somewhere,” he said.
Because school zones are typically on busy stretches of road, the legislators said traffic cameras in school zones would not only slow traffic significantly in those specific areas, but likely on a broader scale through the travel area.
“The data shows that’s the cheapest and most effective way to slow cars down,” said Updike, who supports the legislators’ plan to propose a bill that would allow cities to install traffic cameras in school zones for traffic law enforcement.
Johnson said, “Engineering is one piece of this, education is another piece of this, but we have to pick up the enforcement because right now the lack of enforcement is a very, very big problem that is leading to a much more dangerous driving experience and experience for pedestrians as well.”
He said he understands people have concerns about data, where photos of license plates are stored, etc., but he believes this bill poses a greater benefit to the overall safety of the communities it could impact.
“When we were seeing a 31% increase in reckless driving, when more than 130 people are killed, when 260 pedestrians are hit each year, we have to find a solution that is innovative that utilizes resources effectively and automated traffic cameras are a very smart way to try and address this,” said Johnson.
“Just on the trip from downtown to the east side of Indianapolis, you’re gonna see three school zones there and if we can enforce and cite in those three spots, we would dramatically reduce the rate of speed along that corridor, which is one of the most dangerous in the city,” he continued.
Johnson called this effort a reset and reminder to Hoosiers that they need to be careful on the road.
“In addition to what we’re doing here, requesting funds from the governor, trying to get a piece of legislation through this building for cameras, we also just need people to slow down and remember you getting to work a little bit faster is not worth taking someone else’s life or injuring someone and incapacitating them,” said Johnson.
“Hoosiers and visitors to our state need a hard reset in what is expected from them while driving, and that’s what these immediate and long-term plans seek to provide,” said Gore.
There have been no updates in the governor’s consideration of the request to allocate funds. We will update the story with any relevant information on this request.