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Texting or talking on a cell phone while driving is so dangerous that it contributed to nearly 300 of the 3,081 driving fatalities that occurred throughout the state in 2009, according to the California Office of Traffic Safety.
The high number of deaths has prompted state and local law enforcement officials to launch the Distracted Driving Awareness campaign in April, where officers from the California Highway Patrol, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department will be specifically targeting people who are using cell phones while driving. Sgt. Mike Caprioli, head of the traffic detail at the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station, said cell phone use while driving is so prevalent in the city that cell phone violations are highest in West Hollywood. While he did not have statistics available, Caprioli said that cell phone use contributes to a large number of collisions that occur in the city.
“There are a lot of rear end collisions where people are following too closely or the driver wasn’t paying attention, and we are pretty sure that cell phone use is a factor,” Caprioli said. “Our message is don’t do it, and hands free driving means hands free. A lot of people think you can hold the phone and talk on a speaker while driving, but that is the same thing as using the phone, and you will get a citation.”
Caprioli said more people may use cell phones while driving in West Hollywood because of traffic congestion and low speed limits in the area, however, patrol deputies are very proactive in looking for people talking or texting on cell phones.
“The highest speed limit in West Hollywood is thirty-five miles per hour, so maybe it is just that we observe it more,” Caprioli added. “Our officers are more aware of it, and they are writing a lot of citations.”
The LAPD and CHP will be conducting special enforcement actions throughout April, but the specific dates have not been released. The campaign began on Monday, and will last indefinitely.
“We take distracted driving very, very seriously,” said Lt. Ron Katona, the officer in charge of the LAPD’s Traffic Coordination Section. “The ongoing, irresponsible practice of drivers using their cell phones and texting has to stop. The practice is such a concern that the LAPD embraces the zero tolerance strategy. Is a text message or cell phone call really worth risking injury or death?”
Drivers who receive a citation for using a cell phone while driving can expect a minimum fine of $159 after court fees and assessments, according to Chris Cochran, a spokesperson for the California Office of Traffic Safety. A second offense costs $279. The law prohibiting talking on a cell phone while driving went into effecting July 2008, and the law prohibiting texting while driving followed in January 2009, but many people never got the message, according to Cochran.
“The California Highway patrol alone has written over 350,000 cell phone and texting tickets since the laws went into effect,” Cochran said. “While DUI drivers account for the most fatalities, around thirty percent, cell phone use is a close second, with distracted driving attributable to around twenty percent of fatalities.”
Office Chris Baldonado, a public information officer for the CHP’s Central Los Angeles Division, said many young drivers don’t see the danger in driving while using a cell phone. He said while people of all ages engage in the activity, young people from age 16 through their early 20s are especially at risk because they often lack driving experience.
“Driving is a skill that is learned, and a lot of young people lack those skills. When you couple that with talking on a cell phone or texting, it really adds to the distraction,” Baldonado said. “Any adolescent under eighteen cannot use a cell phone at all while driving, even hands free, because they are at higher risk because of the lack of experience.”
Cochran said the enforcement efforts are being funded by the Office of Traffic Safety through federal grants, and that this is the first national effort of its kind. He said the number of deaths occurring because of distracted driving is significant nationwide, and approximately 5,400 people were killed in 2009 in collisions resulting from cell phone use.
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