St. Paul PD pumps up its traffic unit to deal with distracted driving

As the St. Paul Police Department increases the staffing of its Traffic and Pedestrian Safety Unit to combat distracted driving crashes, the department is also continuing its Stop for Me education events. During the events — which take place at problematic intersections flagged by neighbors — police officers and citizens cross the road, educating both drivers and pedestrians about laws and expectations. (courtesy of Stop for Me)

With four fatal pedestrian crashes already this year in the city, the St. Paul Police Department is working to crack down on distracted drivers while helping out pedestrians.

Earlier this year, St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell highlighted the department’s priority of pedestrian safety by adding three more officers to its traffic unit, filling it out to 12 officers. The new officers are dedicated to watching for distracted driving.

The former Traffic Enforcement Unit was renamed as well; it’s now called the Traffic and Pedestrian Safety Unit.

“Our crash data is showing that a bicyclist or pedestrian is being struck about every other day in St. Paul,” said unit Cmdr. Jeremy Ellison. “From our perspective, we look at those crashes and know that every one is preventable.”

To try to reduce these preventable crashes, the Traffic and Pedestrian Safety Unit has been working on a number of projects to educate both drivers and pedestrians and enforce the rules of the road.

The unit’s Sgt. Kat Brown said that making traffic safer for everyone comes down to a three-prong approach: education, enforcement and engineering.

Last year, the department worked with the University of Minnesota on a study that looked at compliance rates of drivers stopping for pedestrians before and after intentionally increased patrols. Some of the intersections studied on the East Side included those at White Bear and Nebraska avenues, East Seventh Street and Bates Avenue, and Maryland Avenue and Walsh Street. 

Before the increased enforcement, there was a roughly 30% compliance rate of drivers stopping for pedestrians; afterward it rose to between 72% and 75% compliance. Ellison said that a check this spring is still finding fairly high compliance rates, but that they had dropped off a bit during the winter. 

“What we know is that drivers that see pedestrians stop for them. Every driver that hits a pedestrian says they don’t see them,” Ellison said, adding the unit just wants to get drivers to slow down and look, and when they see someone, to stop. 

With the engineering component aimed at making traffic safer, Brown said police and the city’s public works department work together to find ways to make the engineering of streets and intersections work in favor of safety, whether it’s reducing lanes, adding curb bumpouts or adding medians.

Brown said one of the most effective engineering components, both in terms of safety and cost, has been crosswalks that use what are called “leading pedestrian intervals.” These are crosswalks that signal to let pedestrians start walking before the green light tells motorists to go, allowing pedestrians to be further into the crosswalks and more visible as vehicles begin to move.

Another way toward better enforcement is simply collecting better crash data. Ellison said that before Jan. 1, 2016, the department wasn’t collecting good data on crashes involving pedestrians or bikers. Now the department has more than three years of the data so it can start seeing trends and changes.


Community involvement

 As the department works on lowering the number of preventable crashes, Ellison and Brown said one of the most effective things they can do is to educate.

To do so, the department and the city’s 17 district councils work together to organize Stop for Me events. During the events, police officers and citizens spend an hour crossing an intersection, back and forth. If a car doesn’t stop while they’re are attempting to cross, the vehicle is stopped and an officer tells its driver about crossing rules.

Officers also work with citizens on how to be intentional while crossing — putting one foot into the intersection and making eye contact with drivers, but also not stepping in front of moving vehicles.

Neighbors can connect with their local district councils to flag possible intersections to host Stop for Me events, and to volunteer to cross with officers during the events.

Upcoming East Side Stop for Me locations include:

* White Bear Avenue and Hoyt Street on Monday, July 15, 6 to 7 p.m. 

* Maryland Avenue and Greenbrier Street on Wednesday, July 24, 3 to 4 p.m. 

* Sixth Street and Johnson Parkway on Monday, Aug. 19, 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. 

* Conway and Ruth streets on Thursday, Aug. 22, from 3 to 4 p.m.

“It’s really about that awareness and getting people to think. We’re human beings and we become complacent and when we’re driving down the road, we don’t leave our house thinking we’re going to drive into somebody that day, but at the same time it happens,” Ellison said.

“I think too there’s been such an increase in distraction,” added Brown, noting it’s not just drivers on their phones but also pedestrians distracted by technology, walking with headphones in their ears. “I think the level of distraction today is off the charts.”

More information about the campaign can be found by searching Facebook for “Stop for Me.”


–Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at

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