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California and the West

Cups of Kindness

Palo Alto Police Reward Good Drivers With Tickets for Coffee

April 19, 2001|VERONIQUE DE TURENNE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PALO ALTO — The rules of the road in this gridlocked college town just changed.

Pause for pedestrians? The police are watching. Obey the speed limit? It's on the record. Yield to a speeding cyclist? Check the rear view mirror--there could be a ticket in your future.

A good driver reward program begun in Berkeley has hopped the San Francisco Bay. Motorists who perform acts of vehicular kindness are being thanked by police with tickets--coupons for free goods ranging from a cup of coffee or an ice cream cone to restaurant meals.

"The point is to get people to be aware when they're driving," said Amanda Jones, commute coordinator for Palo Alto's Transportation Division, which administers the program. "We don't pull people over, we approach when their cars are stopped and say thank you for whatever it was they did--yielding a right-of-way or letting a pedestrian get across the street."

The program, which began this month, copies one used in Berkeley for the last year. At the suggestion of Dash Butler, Berkeley's police chief, officers there started a fund to buy coupons for free lattes.

Response was strong, so when the original coupons ran out, the Berkeley City Council secured an additional $5,000 to continue the program.

"You reward the behavior you want," Butler said. "It wasn't that big a deal, but it did seem to get a lot of attention."

Some Berkeley drivers find the sight of a police officer approaching their car alarming.

"Wow, you scared me," said Daein Kang, a graduate student in economics at UC Berkeley who was rewarded when he stopped for a trio of pedestrians. "I thought I was going to get a ticket when I saw you coming."

Others, secure in their good driving, are merely curious.

"I knew I hadn't done anything wrong," said Jerlyn Smith, a 63-year-old Oakland resident who stopped for a group of students at a busy crosswalk near UC Berkeley. She grinned as Officer Gary Romano cited her good deed and offered her a latte or a juice smoothie.

"I didn't know why [Officer Romano] was coming over to my car, but I never thought it was to give me a free latte," Smith said. "Feels kind of nice to get rewarded like that."

Officials hope the program pays off with safer streets. According to statistics compiled by the California Highway Patrol, Berkeley has one of the highest per capita rates of collisions between cyclists and automobiles in the Bay Area.

In 1998, Berkeley, home to a bustling college campus, had 179 such collisions. Oakland, by comparison, with four times the population, had 135. Even San Francisco, notorious for its challenging cycling environment, had about a third the collisions per capita that Berkeley did.

Safety officials peg a rise in traffic accidents of all kinds to inattention behind the wheel, with cell phone use a high-profile culprit. But officials in San Francisco say that in 1999, distractions such as eating, reading maps, grooming or changing a radio station caused about 20% of all crashes in which drivers ran a red light or a stop sign.

Downtown Palo Alto, a grid of streets bordered by railway lines and residential neighborhoods, faces a similar challenge. The town is home to Stanford University.

The population swells from about 65,000 residents to a weekday high of about 120,000 time-starved students, workers and residents. So when a parking officer who read about Berkeley's "latte ticket" program proposed a similar plan for Palo Alto, officials were interested.

"Congestion here can get really bad, and with things like the rail line forming pinch points, traffic often doesn't have anywhere to go," said commute coordinator Jones. "Giving out rewards is a way to thank people for being courteous, and to get them talking and thinking about how their driving affects the community."

So far, the continuing reward ticket programs remain unique to the two college towns, although police elsewhere have experimented with the idea. Last month, for instance, Buena Park police spent four hours at one busy intersection, rewarding good drivers with $20 grocery coupons.

"I wouldn't call it a trend yet," said Marilyn Sabin, of the state's Office of Traffic Safety. "But the fact is, we spend more time in our cars than we ever used to, so anything that makes you aware that the big, heavy vehicle you're driving could be viewed as a weapon is welcome."

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