TOPSHAM — Motorists may want to be extra careful when they drive through town this year.
A traffic safety enforcement grant through the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety is helping to fund overtime hours for the Topsham Police Department, allowing officers more time on the road to tackle specific traffic problems.
The funds will reimburse the department’s overtime pay. On-duty salaried personnel will provide a partial match through administration and oversight of the grant, as well as police cruiser gas use.
The heightened enforcement will likely begin in mid-February.
The agency already received about $4,000 toward speed enforcement and is due to get approximately $5,600 more to address seat-belt infractions, $17,000 for distracted driving, and $3,600 for impaired operation. Court time that may occur after the grant period ends on Sept. 15 will not be reimbursed.
Although the department has been pre-selected to receive the funds based on information it provided on items like crash data, the Board of Selectmen must still authorize the grants, Police Chief Chris Lewis said in an interview Jan. 11. The panel was scheduled to act Thursday, Jan. 18.
The state wants “more officers on the road, but they want an officer to concentrate just on that specific issue,” Lewis explained. “So they don’t meld together; you can’t do a seat belt and (operating under the influence) crossover. … You have to make stops and you have to make contacts, or you don’t receive the funds.”
Knowing how much money it will receive, the agency must inform the state of its goals and objectives for using those funds. While the speed, seat belt and impaired funds cover single-officer units, the money to fight distracted driving is for two-officer details, hence the larger dollar amount. In that case, one officer watches for offenses, while the other operates the cruiser.
“We’ve never seen money for distracted driving,” which is “the big push this year,” Lewis said. Texting while driving is a qualifying offense, as is eating while behind the wheel, he noted; drinking of non-alcoholic beverages is still allowed.
He recalled one of his officers relating a story about a motorist stopped at a traffic light and talking into one phone in each hand, oblivious as the light turned green.
Although that person earned a fine, Lewis hopes the beefed-up patrols will be as much about teaching lessons as they’ll be handing out tickets.
“A lot of it’s going to be an educational piece,” the chief noted. “It’s not just about issuing summonses. We are allowed to issue warnings; there are no quotas.”
“We’re looking to make the roads safer … and try to make an impact,” he added.
A traffic safety enforcement grant through the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety will reimburse overtime hours for the Topsham Police Department, tackling problem areas such as speeding, seat-belt infractions, distracted driving and impaired operation.