Dangerous Distractions Behind the Wheel
By Aaron Curtis
LOWELL -- Oh, does Lowell Police Officer Scott Sauve have stories to tell. Nearly three decades of law enforcement -- particularly police work involving monitoring drivers -- has a tendency to give rise to colorful and cringeworthy tales.
With the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security launching a campaign against impaired and distracted drivers during the holiday season, Sauve invited The Sun to ride along with him on Saturday to see what he experiences while on the road.
Inside Sauve’s SUV cruiser, contrasting with the high-tech equipment, a string of beads sits. It’s an amulet given to him by his daughter to keep him safe. Not a bad idea considering the risks associated with his career choice.
Sauve recalled one time, when he had a vehicle pulled over, he was nearly run over by a distracted driver.
“I could see that she was looking down and texting and her mirror ended up hitting my chest,” Sauze said. “I was right up against the cruiser. Here it is, a marked cruiser with blue lights on and you’re still looking at your phone, texting away and you hit me.”
As he’s telling the story he stands alongside his cruiser keeping an eye on the intersection of Bridge and Merrimack streets downtown with single-digit temperatures brutalizing the Mill City.
He catches a vehicle turning right on red without stopping while pedestrians are in the crosswalk.
With a flick of the wrist, Sauve orders the truck to pull over. The veteran cop hands over a citation for the crosswalk violation but gives the driver a break on the red light. It’s more of the same.
Sauve points out that he jotted up six citations the hour before the ride-along began -- all including red light and crosswalk violations.
“You got to figure that’s just one intersection in the whole city,” Sauze said.
Sauve is doing work as part of the Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over campaign, which EOPSS said stresses alcohol, drugs and distractions are all impairments and drivers have the responsibility to stay off the road if impaired in any manner.
Distractions include everything from reading a text, blaring music in the car, arguing with a passenger, and even eating a sandwich.
“The majority of people drive well, but everybody is distracted at some point or another,” Sauve said. “And it’s understandable, but when it becomes a crash or when it is something that could have been avoided, then it becomes an issue.”
There’s an educational component of the national campaign, which includes the broadcast of TV, radio and online advertisements, according to a press release from EOPSS. The ads are aimed at male drivers between 18 and 34 -- the group most at risk for getting into a deadly crash where alcohol or distraction are factors, the release states.
“Recreational marijuana is coming to Massachusetts next year and this campaign will emphasize the need for personal responsibility among drivers who use this or any other drug, including alcohol,” stated Jennifer Queally, undersecretary for Law Enforcement for EOPSS. “We know that marijuana, especially when combined with alcohol, negatively affects a number of skills needed for safe driving.”
In Colorado, marijuana-related deaths increased 48 percent in the three-year average (2013-15) since the state legalized recreational marijuana compared to the three-year average prior to legalization, according to the release.
The release also states that 10 percent of traffic fatalities in 2009 involved drivers who tested positive for marijuana. By 2015, that number more than doubled to 21 percent.
“I would say that during the day, there’s more impaired drivers under the influence of narcotics or marijuana,” Sauve said. “We’ve actually had a lot of people overdose while they’re driving.”
He shared a story of a driver and a passenger who overdosed on Thorndike Street while stopped at a red light. The driver behind them ended up calling it in to emergency responders when the light changed from red green with the vehicle not moving.
“The person behind them beeped their horn and as they drove by them, saw their heads were back,” Sauve said. “And that’s fairly common. There’s a lot of accidents that are caused by someone overdosing while they’re driving or they are under the influence of some kind of narcotic while they’re driving.”
“When you’re driving, you shouldn’t be distracted,” he continued. “You shouldn’t be impaired and there’s so many other ways to be distracted other than texting that people don’t really even acknowledge -- the loud music, turning around looking at your kid, using your GPS -- all that stuff.”
With the sunnier weather, Sauve will be on a department motorcycle doing his typical traffic detail -- a task he enjoys that much more.
“If you got to be at work, you might as well be driving a motorcycle,” he said.
Sauve’s night on the job ended with a motor vehicle crash on Westford Street with injury. The wreck resulted in a 68-year-old woman being charged with operating under the influence of alcohol.
“It’s always interesting,” Sauve said. “Everyday is a different day.”
Follow Aaron Curtis on Twitter @aselahcurtis