By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
Chief Steve McCarthy wasn’t just in a good mood or having a better-than-usual day on Thursday.
“I’m ecstatic,” Red Bank’s top cop said.
The reason for his cheer was one that he thinks will have a lasting effect on the borough, because it has a problem, he says: in the last five years, McCarthy says more people have died crossing the street than in homicides.
“That’s why one accident is too much,” he said.
A new state program will bring that number down, McCarthy believes, and change the culture of people driving and walking the streets.
Red Bank is among 13 municipalities in the state to receive federal funding for a new awareness program called “Cops in Crosswalks,” under which police officers conduct decoy operations to catch motorists and walkers not following the state’s new pedestrian safety law that went into effect April 1.
The $8,000 grant will allow police to conduct more enforcement operations such as the one they ran in May on East Front Street, where 33 drivers were caught blowing through the crosswalk in front of Riverview Medical Center as a plainclothes officer tried to cross the street.
McCarthy said the department will focus on problem areas, such as Broad and Front streets and Maple and Shrewsbury avenues.
“You have to draw spotlight to the issue,” McCarthy said. “Without drawing the spotlight, it’s difficult to get the word out.”
He believes the money, which the department has long hoped to obtain, will go a long way toward changing the mindset of people on the streets. The goal is to educate drivers on the new law and make stopping for somebody in a crosswalk second nature, he said.
“The key, though, is they are engaging in education,” said Pam Fischer, director of the state highway and traffic safety division, which held a press conference in front of St. James Church on Broad to announce the grant money. “This is first and foremost an education program. It is not about writing tickets.”
That’s a good thing for anybody getting caught. Violating the new law carries a fine of up to $200 and will cost two points on your license, with a possibility of having to serve 15 hours of community service. Pedestrians who are in violation those not in a crosswalk must yield to all vehicles can get hit with a $54 ticket.
“This is a shared responsibility between both the motorist and the pedestrian,” Fischer said.
The car versus pedestrian scenario is a major problem in New Jersey, she said. Between 20- and 25 percent of pedestrians struck by cars here die from their injuries, and since 2004, the state has averaged 150 deaths and 6,000 injuries from traffic-related crashes involving pedestrians, she said.
Red Bank certainly reflects those statistics. More recently not long after police conducted its decoy a woman was hit by a car on Broad Street. She suffered non-life-threatening injuries, but earlier in the year, a Staten Island woman died from injuries sustained from a Broad Street accident in which she was hit by a sport utility vehicle.
“It’s a huge problem,” Fischer said. “It’s one we haven’t been ignoring and we’re not going to ignore.”
It’s also an issue that affects economics, she said. If people don’t feel safe in a town a downtown in particular they aren’t going to go there. And Red Bank is a place that relies on traffic of all kinds to survive.
“There’s places in the state and the country that you feel very safe. It’s come to be expected,” McCarthy said, “and that’s really what I want in Red Bank.”
The grant money is the first step, he said. When the funds run out, the department will try to get more.
“We’re going to continue, because really any problem you’re attacking, you have your initial approach, then you really need to maintain it,” McCarthy said. “If you don’t maintain it, then it’s going to come back.”