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Law enforcement watches for cell phones on the road

CHP says distracted driving is No. 1 killer of teens in California
By: Andrew Westrope, Staff Writer
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BY THE NUMBERS

460,487: number of cell phone convictions by the California Department of Motor Vehicles in 2011

57,000: tickets issued by California Highway Patrol during the April 2012 enforcement period

3,092: fatalities from nationwide distracted driving accidents in 2010*

159: minimum dollar cost of a ticket for driving while calling or texting

23: times more likely an accident becomes when the driver is texting*

20: percent of statewide injury crashes associated with distracted driving**

18: minimum legal age for using any handheld device behind the wheel

0.75: average reaction time, in seconds, to an unexpected situation on the road**

0: tolerance for distracted drivers this week by local law enforcement

*National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

**California Highway Patrol

 

If it doesn’t cost you life and limb, choosing to use a cell phone behind the wheel this week is more likely than ever to cost you a ticket.

The Placer County Sheriff’s Office has been cracking down on drivers who talk and text, staffing extra patrol officers in Colfax, Loomis and north Auburn since Feb. 25 as part of a statewide campaign against distracted driving. Funded by a $15,000 grant from the California Office of Transportation Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the county sheriff’s second of three heightened enforcement periods concludes on Friday, following one in November and preceding another in April. Auburn CHP will also staff at least 10 officers on Saturday and Sunday to catch drivers with their cell phones.

The focus on distracted drivers is nothing new for state and local law enforcement. More than four years after driving while using a cell phone became illegal in California, statistics show it is still a primary safety concern. According to its most recent data, CHP writes over 10,000 cell phone tickets a month statewide and still counts mobile devices as the No. 1 source of driver distractions.

On patrol in Loomis on Tuesday, Deputy Kevin Jackson said grant money went to several agencies across the seven counties of the Sacramento area last fall with the aim of sending a life-saving message.

“Cell phones and texting are the big focus right now in the state, because the numbers show about 10 percent of fatality accidents (in California) are distracted driving related, and that’s just cell phone-related. That’s not even all the rest of the distracted driving,” he said. “And about 20 percent of injury accidents are cell phone and texting-related.”

Auburn CHP Officer David Martinez said about 25 percent of his department’s traffic stops are distracted drivers, whether for cell phones, texting or otherwise driving at unsafe speeds while doing something else. Driving and eating or adjusting the radio are not illegal, he said, but a driver can be pulled over for putting on makeup, shaving or indulging in any number of dangerous distractions.

“At what speed should they be putting on makeup or shaving? It should be zero. They shouldn’t be driving,” he said. “Years ago, the No. 1 killer of our teens (in California) was (driving under the influence). That has since changed. The No. 1 killer of our teens now is distracted driving.”

Jackson said the law has exceptions for calling a doctor or law enforcement.

Since Placer County Sheriff’s Office is generally responsible for more rural areas of the county, and because the sheriff’s deputies have no quotas, Jackson guessed they have only been making three or four stops per four-hour shift. However, he guessed he might see the same number of violations between one busy intersection and another in a more crowded area like Roseville.

“People will call in now about erratic drivers, people that are drifting lanes and stuff, and it used to be that you knew it was probably a DUI. Now, especially in the daytime we get those, and it’s people that are texting while they’re driving,” Jackson said, and all ages are guilty. “It’s just like speeding. Some people are willing to run the risk.”

That said, he believes drivers are either more careful about breaking the law or more careful about getting caught than they once were.

“I’ve seen, in the last four years, a definite difference in the number of people that you see driving around talking on their phones. I mean, I used to do it when it wasn’t against the law,” Jackson said. “It took me almost rear-ending somebody in my personal vehicle (to stop).”

Deputy Bob Brodovsky, a traffic officer for the county’s Loomis substation, agreed that many drivers have become more conscious of keeping their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel.

“I used to write 10 or 15 (distracted driving tickets) a day,” he said. “Now I write two or three a day here in Loomis.”

Many Auburn residents say they are unconvinced the law is that effective, but they support the enforcement.

Local painter Juan Peña said dialing and driving doesn’t seem any rarer than it was four years ago, but special enforcement periods might help.

“People that drive with cell phones or texting, it’s like they’re blind to all the traffic … I see them making left turns in front of me all the time. It’s somebody talking on a cell phone. I’m glad (the enforcement) is happening,” he said. “Until they get pulled over, it’s not going to happen.”

Auburn resident Jerry Kopp agreed, saying police have been lenient on drivers with cell phones long enough.

“I think they ought to enforce it more, and I’m for it 100 percent,” he said.

Also in favor of the enforcement periods, Angela Bradley said the only way to stop people from breaking the law is to make it uncomfortable for them.

“I drive and text and talk sometimes, but I definitely try not to, and I definitely think about the fact that our police are out, so that is some deterrent,” she said. “And it’s also brought to mind that, ‘This is dangerous and I really shouldn’t be doing it,’ so when I do do it, I feel really guilty and I try not to do it very much.”