James Dixon was shaking his head Thursday afternoon as he left Columbus Recorder’s Court after being found guilty of distracted driving and paying $214.75 in fines and court costs.
Columbus Police have begun a crackdown on distracted driving that started June 1 during a sting along Bradley Park Drive during which 96 motorists were cited, according to police.
Dixon was cited five days later during a police checkpoint on Milgen Road. He had just purchased chicken at the KFC in the area and said he was going to wait until he got home to eat it.
Then he rolled into a checkpoint.
Officer First Class Dallas Willis checked Dixon’s license and registration, according to court testimony. Dixon pulled out a chicken wing and said he began to eat it as the officer went to the back of the vehicle.
Willis then asked Dixon to pull off the road.
“He had both hands on the chicken and no hands on the steering wheel,” Willis told the court. The officer estimated Dixon was doing 5 mph at the time.
The officer told Dixon he was getting a ticket for distracted driving.
“He’s writing me a ticket for eating chicken and all I can say is, ‘Are you serious?’ ” Dixon said.
Dixon’s case highlights the extent to which police are going to try to get a handle on distracted driving on the city’s highways and streets. Thursday was the day most of the distracted driving cases made June 1 along Bradley Park Drive found their way to court.
The Bradley Park sting involved undercover officers dressed as a work crew along the side of the main road. Officers would spot a possible distracted driving violation, radio a motorcycle officer who would make the traffic stop and issue the ticket.
Many motorists caught in the police operation paid the $200.63 in fines and court costs prior to the court date. But some chose to fight it in Recorder’s Court, and they did not find much sympathy from Interim Chief Judge Julius Hunter in the morning or Judge Mary Buckner in the afternoon.
Unlike Dixon’s chicken offense, most of the cases focused on use of electronic devices while operating a vehicle. In Georgia, it is not against the law to talk on a cell phone while driving, but you can be in violation of the law if you manipulate that phone or device and divert your attention from driving.
Hunter found multiple drivers caught in the operation by the police Motor Squad along Bradley Park Drive guilty of their offenses, which ranged from distracted driving and failure to use due care. He was consistent in issuing $125 fines that resulted in payments of about $180 when court costs were tacked on.
Buckner was issuing $150 fines, which drove the cost of the violation when court fees were added to more than $214, which was higher than if motorists had paid the fine without appearing in court. One of the police officers involved in the sting was on another assignment and not available to testify on Thursday, causing a number of the cases to be postponed.
Several of those cited chose to move the case into State Court. One of those was Brittney Ziegler, who was cited in the Bradley Park Drive sting.
“I think it is a better option,” Ziegler said. “I was told they will at least listen.”
Columbus Police Maj. J.D. Hawk said that his officers are taking distracted driving seriously and will continue to issue citations and draw attention to the violations.
“The main thing is this: we want to get the point across to the citizens how dangerous this is,” Hawk said. “If you are not watching the road or you are looking at a text message or looking at that computer screen, you do not have your full attention on that road. .... You are not only putting yourself at danger, you are putting other people on that road in danger.”
The police were carefully watching the outcome of Thursday’s court cases and the reaction of the court and the citizens cited.
“We also want to see of the contentions they make, to see if there is a way we can do the operation better; so they realize they don’t want to contest it and they are caught red-handed,” Hawk said.
Hawk said Columbus police will continue to use undercover operations to catch distracted drivers.
“I can tell the public that the Columbus Police Department will continue to monitor the situation and we will continue to make additional distracted driving cases,” Hawk said.