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CHP cracks down on cell phone law violators

239 citations issued in 24 hours, department says
By: Bridget Jones, Journal Staff Writer
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The California Highway Patrol cited hundreds of drivers misusing cell phones Tuesday and Wednesday, and local residents have varying opinions about enforcement. From 6 a.m. Tuesday to 6 a.m. Wednesday the California Highway Patrol Valley Division hosted a “zero tolerance” day for people driving and talking on their cell phones without a hands-free headset, as well as those who were text messaging while driving. The division issued 227 citations to people talking on their phones, and 12 citations to drivers who were texting. Officers also gave 52 verbal warnings, according to Officer Adrian Quintero, spokesman for the Highway Patrol Valley Division. After stops related to cell phone usage, two people were arrested for driving under the influence, Quintero said. The enforcement day covered the area between Lake Tahoe and Modesto, including the foothills, Quintero said. The hands-free cell phone law went into effect July 1, 2008, and since then there have been 1,303 collisions throughout the state that were related to drivers being distracted by cell phones, according to a Highway Patrol press release. As a result of those collisions there have been 17 fatalities and more than 800 people injured. The Highway Patrol has issued 329,602 citations to hands-free violators from July 2008 through December 2010. The department issued 5,100 citations to those who were texting and driving during the same time period, according to the press release. Auburn resident Mick Currie said he has talked on his cell phone without a hands-free device while driving, but it’s not a common occurrence. Currie said he doesn’t own a hands-free adapter. “They are annoying to me,” Currie said. “I think I put one on once. I don’t know how people can stand it to tell you the truth. I don’t have a need to be on the phone all the time.” Currie said he thinks it’s important to have the current law, but he doesn’t think it should be the highest priority for law enforcement officials. “Everywhere I go, I see it all over the place,” he said. “I’m watching a lot of people almost cause accidents in front of me every day, because they are talking on their phones. But I also think there are more important things cops need to be doing.” According to the Highway Patrol, cell phone violations come with a minimum fine of $20 for the first offense and $50 for the second offense. However, when other fees, such as court costs, are added in, the first offense can cost more than $100. “That’s actually pretty easy,” Currie said. “They should be more.” Auburn resident Celia Olshefski said she doesn’t own a hands-free device, and her cell phone is always turned off in her purse unless there is an emergency. Olshefski said she also thinks the fines should be higher and that the law is very necessary. “If you take your eyes off the road for a minute you are in trouble,” Olshefski said. Grass Valley resident Heather Chirigotis said she doesn’t own a hands-free headset, but puts her phone on speaker if she really needs to talk while driving. Chirigotis said she thinks the current cell phone laws are reasonable, but that other things in a car could be just as distracting as cell phones. “I have been in a car accident before because I was talking on the phone, so I have learned,” Chirigotis said. “It’s distracting (but) I think talking on the phone isn’t as big a deal as if you are texting. Talking on the phone is the same as talking to a passenger. You are still distracted.” Sgt. Doug Milligan, of the Newcastle Highway Patrol office, said enforcing the cell phone laws would be a major focus of the department for quite some time, because the results of distracted driving hit close to home. “I’m driving in my personal vehicle, and I see it all the time,” Milligan said. “We have had a fatality in our area with a young lady texting while she was crossing a roadway.” Quintero said the department will probably have another “zero tolerance” enforcement day in April and will most likely invite all local law enforcement agencies to participate. The goal of these efforts is to educate drivers about potential dangers of using cell phones while driving, Quintero said. Michelle Abbott, sales manager at the Verizon Wireless store on Elm Avenue said hands-free devices range in price from $20 to $130. The store isn’t seeing huge sales in the items, Abbott said. They have been pretty steady, honestly, but they did go up once they put that law into effect,” Abbott said. “We push it on people, but I think a lot of people really think their speaker phone is enough.” Reach Bridget Jones at bridgetj@goldcountrymedia.com