Cellphone talkers and texters, beware. California Highway Patrol officers around Sacramento have special marching orders on Friday and Saturday:
Find you and ticket you.
"If someone is driving distracted, we want officers to issue citations," said CHP spokesman Adrian Quintero.
Also on Friday, plainclothes officers and volunteers with clipboards will be stationed on foot at several major intersections around Sacramento, peering into passing car windows and noting the types of distracted driving they see.
Similar tallies will be taken in the Auburn and Stockton areas. They won't be ticketing. They'll be gathering data to be forwarded to the California Office of Traffic Safety as part of an emerging statewide campaign to understand and combat distracted driving.
Troubled by drivers who continue to talk and text on cellphones despite new laws prohibiting it, safety officials say they hope educational messages and some old-fashioned ticket writing will help change people's driving habits.
CHP officials, who conducted a similar crackdown statewide in April, admit to some frustration. "It is pretty blatant now," Quintero said of drivers ignoring the law. "It is kind of scary as well, having our families out on the road."
It's against the law in California to talk on a handheld cellphone, and to write, send or read text-based communications on a cell- or smartphone or other electronic wireless device while driving. Violators face a $166 fine.
The California law on handheld cellphones, one of the first in the nation, went into effect in 2008. The ban on texting followed in 2009. Since then, the CHP has issued about 500,000 cellphone tickets, but only 12,000 texting tickets. Officials say texting is harder to detect.
Earlier this month, the National Transportation Safety Board called for a nationwide ban on the use of all cellphones, including those that are hands-free, while driving. The author of California's handheld cellphone ban, Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, said he believes a hands-free ban is unlikely to win approval in the Legislature and that he doesn't plan to introduce a bill on the subject.
Law enforcement officials say their concern about distracted driving extends beyond cellphones. They point out that during Friday's crackdown, drivers who are observed eating food or reading a newspaper, for instance, can be cited if that activity affects their ability to safely operate a vehicle.
"The car is supposed to get you from point A to B, not to be used as your bathroom for shaving or putting on makeup. That's ridiculous," Quintero said.
The zero tolerance period will run for 24 hours, from 6 a.m. Friday to 6 a.m. Saturday.
In the coming months, the CHP also plans to focus distracted-driving enforcement on streets around some local high schools.
State officials say they do not have sufficient data to know how many crashes are caused by drivers using cellphones. CHP data indicate inattentive driving contributed to the deaths of 217 people in 2009 and 2010, about 4 percent of roadway fatalities. But safety officials say the number may be much higher. Extrapolations from a federal highway safety analysis suggest as many as 18 percent of traffic deaths could be related to driver inattentiveness or distractions.
Drunken driving still accounts for the highest percentage of California roadway fatalities, at 29 percent. Notably, though, 20 percent of California drivers in a recent survey said they believe cellphone use is the biggest safety problem on the road. Eighteen percent listed texting as the worst risk, 17 percent said speeding and aggressive driving, and 13 percent cited drunken driving.
Officials with the state traffic safety office, which did the survey, said they're pleased drivers recognize cellphone conversations as a serious driving distraction.
"Distracted driving is something we want to curb early, so it doesn't become entrenched," state traffic safety spokesman Chris Cochran said.
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