Monday, November 12 , 2018, 3:52 pm | Fair 74º


John Conroy: Santa Barbara Police Target Motorists Driven to Distraction

Laws against texting and using hand-held cell phones don't seem to deter some drivers as officers issue 116 citations during a two-day crackdown

When I saw the Santa Barbara Police Department news release that April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and that on Monday and Tuesday officers would be extending “zero tolerance” to motorists texting or using hand-held cell phones, I knew I wanted to sign on to ride along with the police.

I have had issues with the many, many drivers who consciously disobey the law by using a cell phone while operating a vehicle. I spend a good portion of the workweek behind the wheel of a car, and even before the hands-free law went into effect, I observed near-collisions and far too many drivers unaware of what was going on around them. I tell my family: “If the city would give me a ticket book and I could make citizens arrests for cell phone use or texting, the city budget would be in the green.”

Driver distraction have joined alcohol and speeding as the leading factors in fatal and serious injury crashes. Using a cell phone is now the No. 1 source of “driver distraction” crashes in California. Drivers using cell phones are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves and others. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 16 percent of fatal crashes in 2009 involved “distracted driving.”

On Monday, I met up with Sgt. Mike McGrew, the Santa Barbara Police Department’s traffic supervisor, to observe firsthand the number of drivers who still use cell phones, even though the law banning talking on hand-held phones has been in effect since July 2008 and the ban on texting while driving has been law since January 2009.

I rode with Sgt. McGrew from our meeting point by Las Positas down State Street to a busy downtown location. I had commented to McGrew how I see offenders to both laws all the time in my travels, but as I’m looking at the vehicles around us, no one is on a phone. Then I realize — I’m in a patrol car. “Hey, I’ll call you right back, there’s a cop behind me.” How many times have you heard that one?

We rendezvoused with officer Carl Kamin just south of Figueroa Street on Anacapa Street. Kamin informed us that he had already written two tickets for using a hand-held cell phone. Before I really had a chance to introduce myself to Kamin, he spotted an infraction in a vehicle passing by our location. He pursued the vehicle and detained the driver.

Yes, she was on the phone, the woman told the police officer. Yes, she knew it was against the law to use a hand-held phone. The driver was generally uncooperative with both police officers and very upset that I was there taking photos. After she exchanged her driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance for a $159 citation, the driver was on her way.

Eating, drinking, using a PDA or GPS, reading and applying makeup can all contribute to an increase in driver distractions. The best advice is to do one thing at a time and focus on the road.

The police detail returned to the observation area, and they were not there for more than three minutes when another driver was observed using a hand-held cell phone. On this stop the alleged cell phone user spoke with me and claimed she answered “an emergency call from her brother.” In this case the driver “received” a call, and how would she know it was an emergency? This driver was cited. California law allows a driver to use a wireless phone without a hands-free device to make emergency calls to a law enforcement agency, a medical provider, the fire department or other emergency service agencies.

The third stop I observed in the one hour I was with the detail, the driver just didn’t have an excuse. She was a young lady talking to her mom. I would venture to guess her mom will end up paying her fine.

Turn off your phone! It sounds easy, but it really does work. If you don’t hear the ring of the phone or the ping of a text message, you’re more likely to focus on the road.

There was a radio transmission that Sgt. McGrew responded to and the detail was called off. Officer Kamin was reassigned to a collision that happened about 200 yards north of our location. A vehicle had hit a motorcycle. Luckily, no one was injured. I was shocked when I found out the driver of the car involved in the accident was the uncooperative woman who was cited earlier for cell phone use by Kamin. I only hope she wasn’t on her hand-held phone again!

Santa Barbara police issued 116 citations during the two-day citywide crackdown. If this exercise will make us think next time we dial and drive, prevent one crash from happening and hopefully save one life, then it was worth it.

I am happy to report that while I was observing the police detail, no one was cited for texting. I mean, come on. I have a difficult time texting from my kitchen table. It’s hard for me to believe people actually can text while driving. Be safe.

— John Conroy is a contributing photographer and writer for Noozhawk. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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