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INDIANAPOLIS — Following a nationwide and statewide trend, authorities in Marion County have also seen an increase in traffic accident deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.

“We’ve experienced an increase in reckless driving, traffic fatalities, serious bodily injury accidents and we’ve had several high-profile cases of children that have been killed this year an accident,” said Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department East District Commander Richard Riddle.

“With that increase, we have taken a district-by-district approach to tackle the issue of unsafe driving, speeding, street racing and everything that goes along with that,” he added.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimated that while Americans drove significantly less in 2020 due to the pandemic, there was a 7.2% increase in traffic fatalities reported compared to the year before.

Statewide, the number of traffic fatalities increased by about 8%, outpacing the national increase. In Marion County, the number of traffic fatalities spiked by 31% and IMPD is working to target hotspots for reckless driving across the city to help bring down those numbers.

“As we see violence kind of peak in our city, the most reported issue that we’re seeing is traffic violations,“ said IMPD North District Commander Michael Wolley.

As Riddle shared, each district has a hotspot that attracts street racers, reckless drivers or even has parking lots that draw in crowds of people gathering to do things like burnouts.

“Each district takes a little bit of a different approach based upon what the issues are in that specific area,” said Riddle.

Recently, IMPD shared its efforts to crack down on reckless drivers in school zones, but even as the sun goes down, the efforts don’t stop on the streets of Indy.

Because the issues being voiced by residents, neighborhood groups or observed by police are individual to each area of the city, the department isn’t taking a one-size-fits-all approach to address the problems and seek solutions.

For example, on North District along the 38th Street corridor — especially around the Crown Hill neighborhood — Riddle said there has been an increased effort to have officers on stationary patrol to help deter drivers from engaging in reckless behavior on the roads.

He added, “There are ongoing efforts to make traffic stops, to slow people down, to see drivers that are going far above the speed limit and, if necessary, make an arrest.”

Wolley said IMPD North District put together a plan called ‘Operation Slow Down,’ which deploys six officers on Thursday through Sunday nights and allows them to focus on traffic enforcement.

“Primarily in the 38th Street corridor, that’s where we’re seeing a lot of our complaints,” he said. “It’s been the site of several different fatalities over the last couple of years.”

Barbara Starks has lived on 38th Street in the area of the Crown Hill Cemetery for more than a decade and said she sees firsthand the actions of drivers along the stretch of road in front of her home. On at least one occasion, it was too close for comfort.

“Over the course of time I’ve seen multiple accidents, had one the drivers hit there – they ran up my yard,” said Starks.

Starks said she walks the area to clean the sidewalks and pick up trash left behind by others, but worries one wrong move by a careless driver and something could happen to her or an innocent bystander.

“They gun it through here because they’re trying to make the next two lights. It is a nice strip not to have to stop, but at the same time, it’s a residential area,” said Starks. “We have people crossing the street and walking along the street.”

She also said multiple times each year, she sees drivers strike the wall along Crown Hill Cemetery.

“There’s a median in the middle, three lanes each way, but they manage to do it anyway,” she said.

In other parts of the city, officers continue to concentrate efforts on targeting reckless drivers, like in IMPD’s Southeast District.

“Southeast District is doing a really good job of enforcing traffic laws along the Madison Street corridor, where we’ve seen year after year street racing go along in that neighborhood,” said Riddle.

He added, “I just heard of an issue this past weekend on Northwest District where street cars would congregate, do burnouts and obviously that adds a concern for us about the safety of everybody involved and I know those officers were taking enforcement action over the weekend as well.”

Riddle said he believes the increase in street racing and congregating of large groups of drivers ramped up big time during the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen a lot of innocent lives taken by the careless actions and driving behaviors of others,” said Riddle.

For IMPD, including officers from several districts, a big focus continues to be along the 38th Street corridor, which stretches from county line to county line.

“There are long stretches without traffic signals through residential neighborhoods,” said Riddle. “What we are seeing is that increase in speeding between.”

“Sometimes you just have people that are aggressively driving there, coming to and from work, tempers flare trying to get to where they’re going, somebody may cut them off, they may speed up and we’ve got an accident,” said Wolley. “We’ve had an increase in the street racing some of that along 38th St. along Binford Boulevard.”

It’s a problem IMPD said is occurring in several areas and it appears to be getting more dangerous and prevalent.

“People on social media will have a meet-up location and then they will race,” said Wolley. “Officers deploy to those areas a couple of times a week just to mitigate that. They’ve had some success but it is a growing problem and more people are getting involved in street racing which is extremely dangerous.”

With the efforts across the city, IMPD said they are working to show Indianapolis residents several things.

“We are trying to prevent that through proactive patrols, stationary patrols and just an overall presence because really what it boils down to, is safety,” said Riddle. “That marked car presence in our neighborhood, we hope, is going to drive down the speeds first and foremost. Secondly, if that marked car is there and they are observing infractions, traffic infractions, while violators they are going to take enforcement action on them.”

“Obviously with the presence of law enforcement, we’re looking to drive down those incidents where traffic accidents occur, where speeding violations occur, that lead to those accidents and our hope is by being out there and driving those speeds down, we can prevent the accidents that we’ve seen,” said Riddle.

Wolley shared that although part of the goal of targeted hot spot enforcement is to slow cars down and stop them from engaging in reckless behavior or driving habits, there are several other elements to their enforcement efforts as well.

If an officer notices equipment violations on a vehicle or something they don’t feel warrants a citation, they may issue an ‘Operation Fix It, Not Ticket” coupon, which is designed to help someone who may be struggling to get on their feet or fix a problem with their car.

“What it is is a coupon that they can take to a location where they can get their plates or whatever fixed,” said Wolley.

Over the last several weeks, Wolley said the initiatives in his district, IMPD’s North District, to target hot spots for reckless driving, have resulted in several arrests, citations, and also coupons to help fix vehicle problems that some of Indy’s residents might be struggling to get fixed.

He hopes the community knows police are hearing their concerns and if anyone has other concerns in their own neighborhoods about reckless driving or other issues, that they will call police when they see it happen or write to the community relations representative, which each district in IMPD has.

“If we save one life, we’re actually saving generations of lives, so it’s important that we tell the local people in Indianapolis and really this is a situation that’s impacting our country make smart decisions, slow down, right drive carefully and responsibly.”