Later this month, thousands of police officers will spread out across California in a massive crackdown on drivers texting or talking on handheld phones. Authorities will be plenty busy, since so many drivers don’t seem to care that these activities have been illegal for nearly five years.
New data from police statewide, according to the San Jose Mercury News, show they issued 425,041 tickets last year for talking on handheld phones — down about 35,000 from the previous year but still a 41 percent increase from 2009, the first full year of the cell-phone ban. Numbers were much smaller for texting citations: 21,059 in 2012. But that’s still a 41.5 percent increase from the previous year and a whopping 640 percent surge since 2009. And it’s texting that concerns police the most — it’s more dangerous because it takes drivers’ eyes off the road, and harder to ticket because it’s easier to hide. “Surprised, no. Dismayed, yes,” said Chris Cochran, a spokesman for the California Office of Traffic Safety. “After the intense media, public awareness and enforcement campaigns that have been mounted the past four years, we would hope to see a turnaround.”
A study released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 69 percent of U.S. drivers admit to talking on their cell phones and about one in three texts while driving. Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called cell-phone use and texting “a national epidemic.” In 2011, 3,331 people were killed and 400,000 injured in crashes caused by distracted driving. The National Transportation Safety Board has called for a ban on cell-phone use by drivers, including the use of hands-free phones. Most studies show hands-free conversations are just as distracting to drivers as handheld phones.
Drivers complain that texting motorists pose a significant risk by veering into other lanes or not seeing pedestrians or bicyclists as they take their eyes off the road. Some studies have shown that a driver texting can travel the length of a football field at 55 mph without looking up. At minimum, texting drivers can be an irritant when they remain stopped at intersections when lights turn green, or when they drive too slowly on the freeway.
An April crackdown on distracted driving has become an annual tradition. Last year, police across the state wrote almost 61,000 cell-phone and texting tickets in April, more than double the usual monthly total. This year, there likely will be more, said Alameda County sheriff’s Sgt. Tom Rodrigues, who hands out as many as 10 such tickets a day. “I am amazed as to how many people still use the cell every day,” he said. “People don’t get it. I think that the fine should be $500 for the first violation. This might wake people up.” Livermore Officer Traci Rebiejo said the number of texters is most likely much higher than the citation tally suggests. She said spotting someone texting is difficult because drivers usually hold their phones near their laps. “It’s a hard ticket to write,” she said. “Most of us think it’s far more widespread.”
A cell-phone or texting ticket costs $159, much less than the roughly $500 penalty for running a red light or cheating in a carpool lane. When Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian was a state senator, he twice introduced bills to raise the fine and make it a moving violation. Both times Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill. A new proposal would increase the fine to $199 for a first offense and to $371 for a second. “It’s unfortunate the governor did not raise the fine,” said Simitian, who introduced the original ban that took effect July 1, 2008. “People may not think it’s that risky of a behavior, or they won’t be caught or that the fine is not that excessive.” Last week, Rodrigues wrote a citation to a woman texting while he rode right next to her on his loud Harley-Davidson motorcycle in Castro Valley. She never saw him until he ordered her to the curb. Her excuse, Rodrigues said: “She is busy at work and needs to text to get her job done.”
But some who text or use a handheld phone don’t believe it’s any riskier than talking with a hands-free phone, changing the radio station or chatting with a passenger. Christopher Schrader, a 29-year-old consultant from San Jose, said the uproar is “crap” that only gets a lot of attention because other motorists can see those using their phones. “Of course, no one even attempts to blame bad driving on something when the cell phone isn’t present,” he said. “I personally still drive while talking on my cell phone, and I don’t feel distracted in any way. And even crazier, I sometimes even text when I feel it is safe. I’ve never been in an accident in 13 years of driving and have always used my phone during that time. I personally don’t find it difficult to put my focus on the road and have a conversation.”
Other motorists say that’s crazy. “I am so tired of seeing people do it day after day,” said Lisa Mendoza of San Jose, who said she once spotted a woman texting and tried to suggest she should stop. “When I motioned that she should stop, she flipped me off.” Why the number of cell-phone tickets issued last year declined is not clear, Cochran said.
“We would like to think that fewer people are using handheld cell phones, perhaps switching to hands-free or not using at all, but we have no evidence as yet.” He fears the total number of citations could pass a half-million this year and continue rising for years to come. “It just points out the allure of the technology, how it has made its way into our lives, and how we can’t expect a fast turnaround,” he said. “It took efforts for seat belts and against drunk driving 30-plus years.”