Drivers who think it’s safe to answer the occasional cell phone call or to send a quick text message could find themselves under the watchful eye of law enforcement agencies, which are using state funds to target — and ticket — those violators.
The Santa Maria Police Department is in its first year of conducting distracted driver enforcement operations, while the Santa Barbara Police Department is in at least its fourth.
Grant money from the California Office of Traffic Safety foots the bill so officers can be deployed in the field to specifically look for and cite violators, finding a good place to park police cars and then observing cell phone use.
Santa Barbara police conducted 10 operations in April, which was Distracted Driving Awareness Month, after receiving the grant last October, according to Sgt. Mike McGrew.
The grant’s Selective Traffic Enforcement Program (STEP) requires four distracted driving operations during the one-year period, and officers on individual overtime shifts do the patrolling.
When the operations occur is entirely up to officers.
During those April operations, Santa Barbara police issued 44 texting-while-driving citations and 213 citations for violations of hands-free cell phone use, McGrew said.
The April before that, officers cited 50 people for texting and 275 for hands-free violations.
“The reason that we do it is because scientific information shows that distracted driving basically takes about a third of the brain power that should be used while the people are driving,” McGrew said. “It actually is (a big deal). It’s a hard thing for a lot of people to just not answer the phone.”
Santa Maria police were out in the field in search of violators last Friday, netting six cell phone-use citations and citing 28 of the total 37 drivers stopped for other hazardous driving violations, such as speeding, according to traffic bureau supervisor Sgt. Mark Streker.
He said seven traffic officers were working that day during various hours, some aiming speed radar as well as keeping an eye out for cell phones.
Santa Maria police issued an estimated 90 citations for cell phone violators during five distracted driver operations conducted over 35 hours total, Streker said.
More operations are coming before October, he said, and another round of funding will be coming then, too.
Streker said distracted driver operations are funded by a different grant than DUI checkpoints, and are mainly designed to raise awareness.
“We’ve seen everything,” Streker said of drivers who maintain they were just holding their hands up to the ears and more. “Every one of us at some point or another has been guilty. Most people are very accommodating. The bottom line is, if the violator wants to say ‘I wasn’t on the phone,’ they have to go to court go with their phone records.”
Bluetooth or headphone sets are OK, he said, but holding a phone on speaker phone doesn’t count.
“The texting is really such a dangerous thing to do,” Streker said. “On a daily basis our traffic unit makes that a focus.”