Distracted drivers provoke crackdown on statewide enforcement

A driver talks on the phone while driving on Dolores Street in San Francisco on Monday, April 8 2013. Photo by Andy Sweet / Xpress
A driver talks on the phone while driving on Dolores Street in San Francisco on Monday, April 8 2013. Photo by Andy Sweet / Xpress

Sneaking a peek at your phone while behind the wheel is never a good idea, but it could be extra costly this month as the California Highway Patrol cracks down on distracted drivers.

When approached for the 2011 Statewide Traffic Safety Survey conducted by the California Office of Traffic Safety, drivers felt that cell phone usage while driving topped the list as the biggest safety problem on California roads.

Distracted Driving Awareness Month, an April tradition spearheaded by the California Highway Patrol and OTS, seeks to raise awareness for this hazard. Chris Cochran, OTS spokesman, believes that Distracted Driving Awareness Month serves as a time to remind drivers that operating a vehicle while distracted is a dangerous act on the rise that can take lives.

“We didn’t have as much of a problem with distracted driving twenty years ago,” Cochran said. “But with the advent of cell phones, distracted driving is a different animal. This month is about ensuring that the public knows that distracted driving is dangerous.”

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2011, 3,331 people were killed in crashes caused by distracted drivers, and 387,000 people were injured. In 2010, 3,267 people were killed and 416,000 were injured.

SB 1310, commonly known as the Cell Phone Ban Law, went into effect July 2008 in an attempt to curb deaths and injuries from distracted driving. The law prohibits people from using electronic cellular devices to send text messages and to make and receive calls while driving. According to the CHP, drivers who violate this law pay $159 for their first offense, and $279 for their second.

During the month of April, CHP officers and police officers will be hyper-vigilant, keeping a watchful eye out for distracted drivers, handing out two to three times more tickets for this offense, according to Cochran.

During last year’s Distracted Driving Awareness Month effort, 6,000 tickets were issued to drivers in the Bay Area who were texting or talking on their cell phone behind the wheel, which accounted for more than 10 percent of the citations handed out by CHP officers all over California.

Though all ages of drivers can be found guilty of distracted driving, Cochran finds that some age groups are more guilty of distracted driving than others.

“Virtually everybody out there is guilty of distracted driving, in one way or another,” Cochran said. “What we have found is that the older you are, the more likely you are to talk on the phone while driving — as opposed to the 16-25 age group that remains guilty of texting while driving the most.”

Joyce McGrath, an SF State student studying history, does not text and drive because it not only puts herself in danger, but also other drivers on the road.

“I’m a nanny, so most of  the driving I do, I do with small children,” McGrath, 23, said. “I don’t text while driving because I’m driving a death machine. Texting while driving is dangerous, and it isn’t worth the danger that I’d put people under if I did so.”

Drivers aren’t the only ones who feel that they are put at risk by distracted driving. Elizabeth Stampe, executive director of Walk San Francisco, a pedestrian coalition raising awareness for safety in the streets for those who choose not to drive but walk, believes that distracted driving can be potentially harmful for her fellow pedestrians.

“In San Francisco an average of three people get hit by cars in a day,” Stampe said. “One of the most dangerous factors with drivers is that they’re not paying attention to the road because they are distracted by other forces.”

Cochran urges California drivers to put away their phones while they are driving, and focus on the road.

“Looking at your phone is addictive, so just put your device in a place where you can’t reach it while driving,” Cochran said. “Usually that text message or call you just received can wait.”